Bret Harte rocketed into fame overnight after his release of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Short Stories. Before this Bret Harte was the editor of a well know newspaper, Overland Monthly, and before this he was appointed ‘Secretary of the United States Branch Mint’ at San Francisco and he also worked as a miner in his earlier years. Harte derived his method from the famous author Charles Dickens (as he from Smoulett) but Harte appeared to have a finer sense of form within his works. The short stories of The Luck of the Roaring Camp and Other Short Stories present not so much novel situation as eccentric character e.g. Melissa Smith in M’liss. Harte also captures the romance of those days, the glamour of the quest of gold (and the not so glamorous quest of it) and the atmosphere of the time and place.
More than any other author, Bret Harte was responsible for the literary representation of the Gold Rush and placing California on the world’s literary map. The challenge he faced was how to represent a lawless and uncivilised phase of American history that would not only capture the imagination of the middle-class but also to be socially acceptable. Harte decided that the best way to overcome this problem was to import romantic situations and plot structures in an unmapped and unknown landscape. Hid Californian mythology was founded on ideas taken from the Bible, from Greek legend, Washington Irving, Walter Scott and Dickens. Harte’s sentiment is obvious, yet restrained and his pathos is not paraded and insisted upon as Dickens’s was. However, even though there is a variety of incident and going on in his stories, there is still a controlling unity of theme and tone.
In 1849 the discovery of gold was made and this increased the movement to the west even more. People flocked to the west to seek their fortune, as this area was seen as the land of opportunity and the land of dreams. However, along with the stories of success there also came the stories of failure. This can be seen in Bret Harte’s M’liss, where “Smith’s Pocket” is the area where the failures of the gold rush reside. Due to their unsuccessful quest for gold they are forced to form their own lawless community and sink into low moral beings and alcohol abuse. Harte represents these people through the character of Melissa’s father, Old Smith, who focussed on his failings and finally shot himself leaving behind the small but wild M’liss.
When the exploration of the unmapped land began and there was a need for settlement, the people of America thought that it was a religious quest, a test from God. They believed that to survive this test and pass, they would have to struggle with the virgin land until they could cultivate it and live harmoniously with it. Their need to ‘tame’ the land is shown metaphorically through Harte’s description of M’liss and the change of nature she goes through when demanding that the “Master” teaches her.
M’liss is said to have “coarse, uncombed, lustreless black hair” and “bloody feet,” when she is first introduced and her habitat is not mentioned, rather that she is seen roaming around the desert but later in the story, as she becomes milder and pleasanter to the other members of the society, she is placed within a functional home. Here the author may also be justifying the destruction of the untouched land; he wants the reader to feel that the land (M’liss) is not forced to change but wants to change with help from others.
However, in The Luck of Roaring Camp, it is the earth or Mother Nature that controls what happens in this camp. For example, it is Mother Nature who decides that Cherokee Sal shall not live to see her child grow and it is earth that decides that the baby shall not live by causing the flood that drowns it. Harte may be warning that with all the change and destruction that the land has taken, there will be consequences.
Later on, in 1869, the first transatlantic railroad was created and this encouraged more emigration from the east to the west. This caused a massive population boom in the west and also caused unplanned urbanization. As there was no backbone to these communities, shanty towns began to form and within these towns bad social behaviour was created and there was no authorisation and nobody in charge, so people were free to behave the way they wanted without any of the consequences that they would have to face in the east. An example of this type of behaviour can be seen in Bret Harte’s Tennessee’s Partner and The Outcasts of Poker Flat. In Tennessee’s Partner, at the trial, there seems to be a lack of organisation and even the inhabitants of the town do not seem to know how to be civilised, even at a funeral.
In The Outcasts of Poker Flat, again there seems to be no order and the residents are willing to hang members of their community without any real trial and the town is described as “lawless and ungoverned.” However, in this story the author mentions how the people of that town want to redeem themselves. Harte seems very interested in the redemption theory. Here in Poker Flat, the town justifies the hanging and the deportation of some of their less desirable occupants by claiming they want redemption and a ‘clean’ town. This can also be tied in with another of Harte’s short stories, The Luck of Roaring Camp.
In this story, after the ‘Christ-like birth’ of Luck, the female deserted town seems to change direction. The town’s people ‘cleaned themselves up’ and even started decorating their homes. In a book written by Patrick Morrow, one modern reader has described this particular story as “a parable where Christ-like Tommy Luck converts several picturesque mines to a facsimile of Victorian civilisation-before raw savage, anarchistic wilderness wipes them all out” (Morrows 128). As Morrow correctly observes, in The Luck of Roaring Camp Harte includes images from one of the most familiar and beloved stories in western culture, the birth of Christ. This sets the story off on a good point. What was also a good point within this short story is that the men in Roaring Camp mirrored the child-rearing practises of middle-class, white women of his day.
This was hugely influenced by a book written by Catherine E. Beecher (Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1841 and a later, updated version The American Woman’s Home 1869, also written by her sister). In one sense, what is wanted in The Luck of Roaring Camp and subtextually in The American Woman’s Home is the child. On a more prominent level both Harte’s story and Beecher’s treatise are expressions of a battle between the sexes, a huge battle for control over ‘the home’ and what is the proper definition of gender roles. Looking at it from this angle, Harte’s story can only be described as an attempt to establish a female hegemony in the home. Although, you must take into account that Harte was writing at a time when tensions between the two sexes was fraught but Harte manages to engage the cult of domesticity on its own terms and showed that its rhetoric might be made to accommodate a different picture of the American home and the American family.
Also idealised in The Luck of Roaring Camp is the role of women. Harte speaks of the time when Cherokee Sal is dying and is bereft of “the ministration of her own sex,” “sympathising womanhood,” and “her sex’s intuitive tenderness and care.” This assumption is that it is the work of the fairer half of the sexes to care for the ill and dying but this assumption is soon undermined. Now that the author has removed the only woman within this society, Harte has the miners replace her with the only female creature left in the community, which happens to be an ass. The implication here is that the mother is not absolutely necessary.
Catherine Beecher also notes that milk from a new-milch cow mixed with one third water and a little white sugar would do as well (268). However, what makes this text so novel is that not only is Harte erecting the American Woman’s Home in the wilderness but he does so without the presence of a woman. Beecher also claims that the woman is “the chief educator of our race, and the prime minister of the family state,” (149) but The Luck of Roaring Camp proves with convincing clarity that this “aint necessarily so.” Marriage was also not necessary in establishing a “Christian house.”
Roaring Camp, from the very beginning, has been depicted as “a city of refuge,” though the reader is not directly told what it is a refuge from. From what is explained above I think it is safe to say that it is a place of refuge from American womanhood in general and from marriage in particular. In the background of the story lurks the spectre of beset manhood, so vividly delineated by Leslie Fiedler and, in the context of theories of American literature by Nina Baym.
The Luck of Roaring Camp features more than a hundred men that more or less fit Fiedler’s description of the “typical male protagonist of our fiction”: “a man on the run, harried into the forest and out to sea, down the river or into combat- anywhere to avoid ‘civilisation’, which is to say, the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall of sex, marriage and responsibility” (25).
But for Bret Harte, The Luck of Roaring Camp was only the beginning, Bret went on to build a whole literary career on romanticising the development of the west, exalting the strength and beauty of male bonds, particularly as represented by the institution of “partnership” between men.