Both O. Henry and Bret Harte made their name in short fiction during the closing years of the 19th century and (in O. Henry’s case) the opening ones of the 20th. Today, the younger writer’s reputation rests mainly on a fiction prize named in his honor and on a single story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In non-specialist circles, Harte’s reputation has largely ceased to exist. His work is almost completely overshadowed by his contemporary, Mark Twain.
Part of the reason for Harte’s eclipse in the century-plus since his death is the strong regional and period ties that lie at the heart of most of his work. While accounts of the gold camps of California during the boom years might have captured the fancy of readers in 1870, they strike many readers today as antiquarianism of a stripe that isn’t fashionable. Here we don’t read of Downton Abbey or Lonesome Dove or the grimy urban worlds of Dreiser or Crane. Harte’s West isn’t quite wild enough to hold the reader of Zane Grey and far too rusticated for the readers of Henry James.
Like O. Henry and many of the popular fiction writers who followed in Harte’s wake–Chopin, Wharton, and Chesnutt, for example–Harte employed twist endings. Yet in his fiction, we do not find a young husband selling his watch to buy a comb while his wife sells he hair to buy a watch-chain. Where O. Henry’s twists often come across as heart-warming, Harte’s seem more complicated and often quite dark.
In “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” a quartet of more-or-less disreputable sorts are deported from the town of Poker Flat. On the road, they meet up with a couple, the young man of which the main character Oakhurst happens to know. These six people, four tainted and two virtuous, temporarily throw their lots together, but in the morning, one of the outcasts has made off with all the horses. With no transportation and a snow storm moving in, the five remaining people face starvation or death from exposure. One expects a Sydney Carton moment as the gambler or the harlot sacrifice themselves for the virtuous youngsters. Instead, all of the principals die, the harlot and young wife in a snowy embrace and Oakhurst at his own hand. Here we do not have a reassurance of divine justice or a display of the evil triumphing. Instead, we simply see people leveled by death.
“An Ingenue of the Sierras” presents a story of crime and discovery worthy of Law and Order. As a stagecoach works hard to avoid robbery by the notorious Ramon Martinez, we become convinced that the young woman aboard is in fact an accomplice to the robber. When confronted, she explains that she is instead meeting with a lover of whom her father disapproves. Eventually, the couple marry, and then we discover, just moments after they make their departure, that he was indeed Martinez. The stage driver, however, laughs off being deceived and notes the justice in the matter of the marriage: “He’s tied up to that lying little she-devil, hard and fast!” In this story, marriage appears a more burdensome sentence than prison.
In “How Santa Claus Came to Simpson’s Bar,” we hear the story of a Christmas Eve in which a motherless boy is given a good Christmas through the profound efforts of a group of miners. One of the group, Dick Bullen, decides to give the boy, who has no real concept of Christmas, a holiday to remember. Harte presents the long ride that Bullen undertakes in a mock-heroic style. “Sing, O Muse, of the ride of Richard Bullen! Sin, O Muse, of chivalrous men! The sacred quest, the doughty deeds, the battery of low churls, the fearsome ride, and gruesome perils of the Flower of Simpson’s Bar!” Bullen completes his quest, yet returns with decidedly disappointing spoils and has been shot in the bargain. As heartwarming Christmas tales go, this one is quite unclear in its message.
Such ambivalent and even downright gloomy endings seem the stock in trade of Bret Harte. When his heroes triumph, that triumph is typically balanced with almost equal defeat. Virtue does not win over evil, and evil does not receive its comeuppance. Instead, human folly seems on almost constant display.