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A California Christmas Story: Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp”

Bret Harte is little read these days, his works far overshadowed by his contemporary, Mark Twain. (Let me be very clear in saying that Twain rightly overshadows Harte.) Still, Harte wrote competent and far from sentimental stories. Like Twain, the best remembered of Harte’s short stories was an early one that truly put him on the map. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” treats the changes that come about in a gold-rush-era California town–more of a camp, really, as the name suggests–when the only female in town, finding herself in a “family way” without a family, gives birth and then promptly dies. The assorted prospectors and camp keepers look at the baby boy and find themselves smitten. They cannot pass responsibility for this boy off to anyone else. Instead, they take it upon themselves to raise the kid, determining him to be a lucky charm and naming him Tom Luck.

With their newfound communal responsibility at the forefront, the men of Roaring Camp determine to mend their rather dissolute ways.

Almost imperceptibly a change came over the settlement. The cabin assigned to “Tommy Luck”—or “The Luck,” as he was more frequently called—first showed signs of improvement. It was kept scrupulously clean and whitewashed. Then it was boarded, clothed, and papered. The rosewood, cradle, packed eighty miles by mule, had, in Stumpy’s way of putting it, “sorter killed the rest of the furniture.” So the rehabilitation of the cabin became a necessity. The men who were in the habit of lounging in at Stumpy’s to see “how ‘The Luck’ got on” seemed to appreciate the change, and in self-defense the rival establishment of “Tuttle’s grocery” bestirred itself and imported a carpet and mirrors. The reflections of the latter on the appearance of Roaring Camp tended to produce stricter habits of personal cleanliness. Again Stumpy imposed a kind of quarantine upon those who aspired to the honor and privilege of holding The Luck. It was a cruel mortification to Kentuck—who, in the carelessness of a large nature and the habits of frontier life, had begun to regard all garments as a second cuticle, which, like a snake’s, only sloughed off through decay—to be debarred this privilege from certain prudential reasons.

Perhaps since Harte did not want to write a novel and perhaps because he had no idea of how the men of Roaring Camp would deal with a pubescent Tom Luck, Harte cut both story and the boy’s life short. In the wake of a devastating flood, most of the town is destroyed and the infant disappears. At the story’s close, we find that both he and the filthy Kentuck have been swept downstream, the man clinging to the baby.

It needed but a glance to show them Kentuck lying there, cruelly crushed and bruised, but still holding The Luck of Roaring Camp in his arms. As they bent over the strangely assorted pair, they saw that the child was cold and pulseless. “He is dead,” said one. Kentuck opened his eyes. “Dead?” he repeated feebly. “Yes, my man, and you are dying too.” A smile lit the eyes of the expiring Kentuck. “Dying!” he repeated; “he’s a-taking me with him. Tell the boys I’ve got The Luck with me now;”

What do we make of Harte’s story? Obviously the “baby who changes everything” idea resonates with the Christian reader, even if that baby’s mother is about as far from the Virgin Mary as a character could be. In providing a Christian reading of “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” I’m actually drawn not so much to the Nativity accounts as to various of Jesus’ later teachings.

First, consider the character of Kentuck. This man is so filthy, wearing his clothes like a “second cuticle,” that he is prohibited from holding the child. It seems significant that Harte selects such a man to be found downstream with the baby in his arms. Why not Stumpy, the would-be father? Kentuck’s filthy state suggests Isaiah 64:6:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

Yet this man gives up his life happily–one might even suggest blessedly–in a failed attempt to save the baby, a move evocative of both the Beatitudes about persecution and Jesus’ parable of the Pearl of Great Price. Here is a man, recognizing his own filthy condition, who gives up everything he has to cling to the one thing that can make him clean. That he comes to his final state along with the baby’s death and through a sort of water baptism seems to add some extra merit to the discussion.




Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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