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THE CRITICAL RECEPTION OF GABRIEL CONROY (I)

Bret Harte’s Gabriel Conroy, from a historical point of view, was, in fact, the first representative Californian novel. In Gabriel Conroy, as well as in Harte’s stories and poems, California resembles a new land, as well as an old one, emerging from the fringe of an overland empire extending from the greater United States. The scramble of individuals from all parts of the world to search for gold in California, a period known as “the Gold Rush,” provided a catalyst for California’s sharp rise in population in the middle of the nineteenth century. Bret Harte is the most important American writer to apply the transitional setting of the Gold Rush in fiction. The fact that California underwent change as a land that had already been Native American, then Spanish, and then Mexican before being annexed by the United States certainly indicates a variety of claims of identity. As an observer of these regional claims, Harte has been underrepresented as a true literary pioneer. Especially regarding impostors and outsiders, as examples in Gabriel Conroy demonstrate, Harte openly ascribes marginal, sometimes disreputable social roles to characters, usually reserving sympathetic portrayals for outcasts and personae non grata who might ordinarily be portrayed as moral cretins. In his “sketches” Harte mastered the art of the slight, direct description that makes vivid to the reader a brief archetypal representation of a character’s motives within a short dramatic exchange. In San Francisco, as editor of the Overland Monthly, a literary journal, Harte was well-known for this writing ability. Californians were so in awe of Bret Harte, in fact, that he influenced many notable early Anglo-Californian authors with his poetry and originality in terms of the short “sketch.” Harte was “the advisor and critic not only of Charles William Stoddard, but of Joaquin Miller and Mark Twain” (Bettmann 124). Like poets and writers throughout time, Harte’s writing during the 1860s in California produced many of the most innovative, imaginative, and outstanding stories of his career. These, this thesis argues, were influenced, in part, by bohemianism. Likewise, in his occasional attempts at literary criticism for the Golden Era, Harte wrote columns under the name “the Bohemian” “to invent humorous and ironic incidents and characters in order to expose the weaknesses and mannerisms of his subjects” (Morrow, Literary 28). Additionally, it should be noted that although Harte adapted and changed over his career, developing his literary style, he usually returned after brief forays to his familiar setting of a mythic California. The overwhelming responses of scholars who have studied Bret Harte intensively, such as Gary Scharnhorst, Patrick D. Morrow, Margaret Duckett, George Stewart, Jr., and others, concur with Dominic Vincent O’Brien’s theses in his Ph.D. dissertation on a century of the criticism of Bret Harte that “Most of the criticism of Harte’s work has been bad criticism… either imitative or uninformed or both… [and] generally concerned itself with Harte’s life, with the result that biography and literature are often confused” (xlvi). As a result, a number of spurious and ignorant claims about Harte have for a century been anthologized and accepted as fact. In fact, many of these fallacious claims were fueled by anxieties of influence as demonstrated by Mark Twain’s prejudicial comments as a contemporary American writer. Harte’s former friend and later enemy, Mark Twain, denounced Harte infamously in his memoirs, declaring that “It was the corpse of that Bret Harte that swept in splendor across the continent… borrowing from men and living on women which was to cease only at the grave” (Eruption 267-8). Twain also falsely declared that Harte never sent remittances to his family when he lived abroad in Europe for the remainder of his life. In actuality, Harte sent “some sixty thousand dollars” during the twenty-four years of his expatriation (Scharnhorst, Letters 11). Contrary to claims that Harte willfully left his family, one should know that Harte was so beleaguered by debts, loathed by some critics, and unable to raise comparable sums writing in the United States as he later would in Europe, that in many respects he was forced to leave the United States. The notion that Harte exclusively wrote short stories about California, only short stories, only one novel (Gabriel Conroy), and merely reproduced familiar story lines, is untrue. Harte at many times in his career experimented with a variety of settings and themes. While it is true that Harte cherished the notion of regional fiction and was an eminent prophet of a brand of regional literature now known as “local color,” he also wrote numerous, excellent poems (e.g., “The Reveille,” “The Legends of the Rhine,” “The Lost Galleon,” etc.), short stories (e.g., “A Legend of Stammtstadt,” “My Friend the Tramp,” “The Office Seeker,” etc.), and even a novella, The Crusade of the Excelsior (1888), which all take place in settings outside California.

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Bret Harte’s Gabriel Conroy, from a historical point of view, was, in fact, the first representative Californian novel. In Gabriel Conroy, as well as in Harte’s stories and poems, California resembles a new land, as well as an old one, emerging from the fringe of an overland empire extending from the greater United States. The scramble of individuals from all parts of the world to search for gold in California, a period known as “the Gold Rush,” provided a catalyst for California’s sharp rise in population in the middle of the nineteenth century. Bret Harte is the most important American writer to apply the transitional setting of the Gold Rush in fiction. The fact that California underwent change as a land that had already been Native American, then Spanish, and then Mexican before being annexed by the United States certainly indicates a variety of claims of identity. As an observer of these regional claims, Harte has been underrepresented as a true literary pioneer. Especially regarding impostors and outsiders, as examples in Gabriel Conroy demonstrate, Harte openly ascribes marginal, sometimes disreputable social roles to characters, usually reserving sympathetic portrayals for outcasts and personae non grata who might ordinarily be portrayed as moral cretins. In his “sketches” Harte mastered the art of the slight, direct description that makes vivid to the reader a brief archetypal representation of a character’s motives within a short dramatic exchange. In San Francisco, as editor of the Overland Monthly, a literary journal, Harte was well-known for this writing ability. Californians were so in awe of Bret Harte, in fact, that he influenced many notable early Anglo-Californian authors with his poetry and originality in terms of the short “sketch.” Harte was “the advisor and critic not only of Charles William Stoddard, but of Joaquin Miller and Mark Twain” (Bettmann 124). Like poets and writers throughout time, Harte’s writing during the 1860s in California produced many of the most innovative, imaginative, and outstanding stories of his career. These, this thesis argues, were influenced, in part, by bohemianism. Likewise, in his occasional attempts at literary criticism for the Golden Era, Harte wrote columns under the name “the Bohemian” “to invent humorous and ironic incidents and characters in order to expose the weaknesses and mannerisms of his subjects” (Morrow, Literary 28). Additionally, it should be noted that although Harte adapted and changed over his career, developing his literary style, he usually returned after brief forays to his familiar setting of a mythic California. The overwhelming responses of scholars who have studied Bret Harte intensively, such as Gary Scharnhorst, Patrick D. Morrow, Margaret Duckett, George Stewart, Jr., and others, concur with Dominic Vincent O’Brien’s theses in his Ph.D. dissertation on a century of the criticism of Bret Harte that “Most of the criticism of Harte’s work has been bad criticism… either imitative or uninformed or both… [and] generally concerned itself with Harte’s life, with the result that biography and literature are often confused” (xlvi). As a result, a number of spurious and ignorant claims about Harte have for a century been anthologized and accepted as fact. In fact, many of these fallacious claims were fueled by anxieties of influence as demonstrated by Mark Twain’s prejudicial comments as a contemporary American writer. Harte’s former friend and later enemy, Mark Twain, denounced Harte infamously in his memoirs, declaring that “It was the corpse of that Bret Harte that swept in splendor across the continent… borrowing from men and living on women which was to cease only at the grave” (Eruption 267-8). Twain also falsely declared that Harte never sent remittances to his family when he lived abroad in Europe for the remainder of his life. In actuality, Harte sent “some sixty thousand dollars” during the twenty-four years of his expatriation (Scharnhorst, Letters 11). Contrary to claims that Harte willfully left his family, one should know that Harte was so beleaguered by debts, loathed by some critics, and unable to raise comparable sums writing in the United States as he later would in Europe, that in many respects he was forced to leave the United States. The notion that Harte exclusively wrote short stories about California, only short stories, only one novel (Gabriel Conroy), and merely reproduced familiar story lines, is untrue. Harte at many times in his career experimented with a variety of settings and themes. While it is true that Harte cherished the notion of regional fiction and was an eminent prophet of a brand of regional literature now known as “local color,” he also wrote numerous, excellent poems (e.g., “The Reveille,” “The Legends of the Rhine,” “The Lost Galleon,” etc.), short stories (e.g., “A Legend of Stammtstadt,” “My Friend the Tramp,” “The Office Seeker,” etc.), and even a novella, The Crusade of the Excelsior (1888), which all take place in settings outside California.

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