Walter Mencken 4 p.m., May 3
- Community Blog
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF GABRIEL CONROY (II)
Harte also wrote creatively and successfully in forms other than the short story. These non-short story works include several volumes of good poetry, some literary theory (e.g., “The Rise of the Short Story,” “American Humor”), over ten plays (most of which have been unfortunately lost), and numerous novels and novellas such as Three Partners (1898) and the trilogy, A Waif of the Plains (1890), Susy: A Story of the Plains (1893), and Clarence (1895). Harte’s poetry, like his prose, authentically conveys a distinctly American style of speech. Harte popularized writing in dialect, even if the dialect is partially fictionalized. Harte was acutely aware of the project and subject of his verse. Hence, he has no epic poems because he did not relish exalted themes in verse (free or metrical), which were common of Walt Whitman and Joaquin Miller (with the exception of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whom Harte idolized). Both Harte and Longfellow depicted mythic places with a grandeur of nature-oriented descriptions and symbolic protagonists. Bret Harte’s popularity declined in the 1870s, the same decade it had reached its height. It would be incorrect, however, to assume that Harte’s influence ended abruptly. He continued to write for over twenty years until his death in 1902. As Dominic V. O’Brien notes, Gabriel Conroy was not doomed from the outset to become an abject failure, although it would become one in the United States (25). In its first year, although these numbers are of uncertain accuracy, according to Gary Scharnhorst it sold “only 3,354 copies… (according to Bliss’s account books, which were not always to be trusted)” (Opening 117). This number, even for Harte, was much lower than his usual sales. Compared with another book, much smaller, that he had published recently, Harte informs Samuel L. Clemens in a letter from March, 1877, that his other publisher, James R. Osgood and Company “sold more copies of ‘Thankful Blossom’ in a month, than Bliss has sold of ‘Gabriel Conroy’” (Scharnhorst, Letters 146). Although Gabriel Conroy was “his bid for more substantial fame than he had yet achieved… Seldom, perhaps, has such a big literary balloon been so promptly punctured” (O’Brien 25). The truth, nonetheless, is that Harte earned a small fortune despite the novel’s failure of publication, principally from $6,000 for the American Publishing Company book contract, and the $3,000 Harte earned from the novel’s Scribner’s serialization contract (Scharnhorst, Bret 49-50). These amounts represent no small value considering the high purchasing power of the U.S. dollar in the 1870s. Yet these earnings figures do not compensate for the literary void Gabriel Conroy entered following its publication in the United States. As Gary Scharnhorst, a credible biographer and renowned Harte scholar, confirms, “Its serialization effectively killed its sales as a subscription book” (Opening 116). Conversely, in Germany the novel appealed to a desire for Western themes and “proved immensely popular” (Stewart 227). Although Harte received no financial compensation from the novel’s “no fewer than 14 editions in two German translations,” he benefited by at least being able to boast that Gabriel Conroy was the novel upon which his “literary reputation” rested in Germany (Scharnhorst, Bret Harte 52). This was due, in part, to the cultural niche Harte’s California-themed writings filled. In Germany, there was an enormous cultural appetite for tales of the Far West, and for the brand of regional writing that Harte popularized with his power of characterization, ability to reconstruct time, and the intangible nuances of his settings that “…attest a breadth and solidity of reputation which it would be absurd to claim for any other contemporary American” (Hazeltine 288-9). He was romantically exotic for them.