Don Bauder 8 p.m., Sept. 1
- Community Blog
THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF GABRIEL CONROY (IV)
Moreover, later biographers have almost all dismissed Gabriel Conroy as an abject failure. Even when generally praising Harte, the writer, as Henry Childs Merwin does, the novel he believes remains such a nuisance “…that there are times when the reader almost believes that Bret Harte has dropped the pen, and some inferior person has taken it up” (330). However, Harte, in a letter to James R. Osgood, one of his publishers, in 1880, in Europe, concedes only that “[Gabriel Conroy] was never a success─was unwieldy, expensive and unprepossessing for the retail trade. It was a wretched mistake, of publication” (Scharnhorst, Letters 250). Plot is an important aspect of any narrative, and it is therefore a measure of artistic success. Yet it was one that was unmercifully and incorrigibly applied to Gabriel Conroy. The novel, in fact, has many appealing elements of plot that keep the reader interested, such as its cliffhanger endings to chapters, reversals of fortune, remarkable coincidences, and other perpetuations of dramatic tension. Reviewers and critics have overlooked these aspects as intentional and effective plot devices. The second critique by the London Athenaeum, paraphrased by O’Brien, states that Harte merely reproduced settings and storylines. In Gabriel Conroy, Harte authoritatively expounds the California he became famous for popularizing. Fitting with the small fortune Harte earned from the novel prior to its publication and the potential even a moderate financial success would have afforded, possibly including posterity and appreciation by later generations of American literary critics and readers, California would have a stronger cultural and literary identity than it today possesses. The critic in the Athenaeum noted, more presumptively than credibly, “On the whole the story is not lacking in amusement and variety… but coming from Harte, we must regard it rather as indicating fatigue” (qtd. O’Brien 26). Harte’s 500-page novel can hardly be considered an effort “indicating fatigue.” The complicated and intricate plotline this thesis explores, attention to the archetypal impostor and outsider, testimony of the era of the Gold Rush, and cultural repercussions of the appropriation of California following the Mexican-American War have never been, and never could be, equaled or surpassed. Yet Harte remains entirely unknown to the common Californian, and no more than a footnote in the history of American literature, even more appalling when one considers that Californians represent approximately 12% of the American population. For an examination of how hostile these initial negative reviews of the novel were, O’Brien notes of the Saturday Review in London: Three weeks later an entirely disenchanted reviewer elaborated on this position… the book, he says, is too involved, too imitative (exaggerated Dickens, he calls it), and too contrived (mistaken identity, landslides functioning as a deus ex machina, and the like). He decries Harte’s psuedo-historical occurrences to explain plot extravagances. Not only are the characters not lifelike, he says, but the writing is “far below the author’s usual mark… one grows somewhat weary of the people who combine angelic dispositions with ruffianly lives.” (qtd. O’Brien 26) If one carefully analyzes the above review, the reviewer’s faulty reasoning is apparent. The claim of identity─a process that now has historically defined the United States as it recovered from the heinous results involving the Civil War, Reconstruction, and an imperial trajectory following the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo─is confusedly entitled by the reviewer “too contrived.” The “pseudo-historical occurrences” of a once pacifistic and idealistic confederation of democratic states-turned-empire, such as Harte’s apt depiction of Ah Fe regarding People v. Hall and the barring of Chinese and Native American testimony, the dispossession of the landed Spanish and Mexican elites, the rise of the American impostor, and the cannibalistic, ruthless capitalism of California’s rapid development symbolized by the characters of Mr. Peter Dumphy, Mr. Pilcher, and Mr. Dyce are hardly what one might consider “plot extravagances,” nor is the sweeping depiction of the early Anglo-Californian mines, cities, and missions an extravagance. These characters and settings Harte used are essential to any representation, fictionalized to a necessary extent, to create a “classic” depiction of the Gold Rush era of the Golden State. A London reviewer would not know what was and was not “lifelike” during California’s Gold Rush. Perhaps these criticisms persisted because of some unfathomable anxiety about the role Bret Harte might play in the future of American letters. As Harold Bloom quotes of Oscar Wilde, “Influence is simply transference of personality… Every disciple takes away something from his master” (6).