Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bret Harte, Tales of the Gold Rush


Opening Passage: (From the story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp")

There was commotion in Roaring Camp. It could not have been a fight, for in 1850 that was not novel enough to have called together the entire settlement. The ditches and claims were not only deserted, but "Tuttle's grocery" had contributed its gamblers, who, it will be remembered, calmly continued their game the day that French Pete and Kanaka Joe shot each other to death over the bar in the front room. The whole camp was collected before a rude cabin on the outer edge of the clearing. Conversation was carried on in a low tone, but the name of a woman was frequently repeated. It was a name familiar enough in the camp,—"Cherokee Sal."

Summary: Harte's short stories are humorous tales, but there are different kinds of humor. For instance, some kinds of humor are based on the disruption of expectation, while others are based on seeing the imperfection in the good. But Harte's humor is different from either of these. The humor in Harte's tales is that which is less funny -- although sometimes, as in "Prosper's 'Old Mother'", it becomes hilarious -- than good humored, is that of seeing the good in the hopelessly flawed. It is a form of humor that is at once frankly realistic and yet romantically optimistic. Wrongdoers cannot evade the consequences of their sins, but they receive any respect their good works can get them. An impenitent sinner can never be a saint, and the disreputable and rough-hewn can never fit the role of social exemplar -- but they have all the nobility of being human and can have all the honor of doing even just one thing that breaks them out of type.

All of the stories in this collection concern this aspect of human life. In particular, we see again and again how even unsavory and dubious characters can be ennobled by acting in a way that thoroughly respects one good thing -- the four that come up in the tales, in various combinations, are friendship, parenthood, marriage, and innocence -- and how human civilization is built of this. Our civilization is not built by saints. It is built by sinners, often thoroughly impenitent sinners, who nonetheless have at least one clear point of honor, which leads them to respect one good thing enough to make some genuine sacrifices for it. The tale that highlights this most explicitly, I think, is "A Protegee of Jack Hamlin", in which Jack Hamlin, a recurring character throughout the stories, and a cool-headed womanizing gambler, befriends a young lady when he prevents her from committing suicide. Hamlin's chosen lifestyle locks him in a bind; he cannot help her honestly. His reputation is such that he can barely be seen in the company of a woman without people assuming some fooling around is going on, so helping her openly would hurt her reputation. The good an innocent could do openly, the guilty must sometimes lie to do, and without any of the experience required to do it completely as it should be done. But he does it anyway, as best he knows how, and for a simple reason: though his morality is more than slightly hazy, he has one or two sharp, clear points of honor.

One of the things that helps make Harte's approach work is his clear recognition of this heroism of the hopelessly flawed. We see this in part in his repeated tendency to see his flawed characters as Argonauts, that is, in terms of Greek hero tale. We tend to read the Iliad and the Odyssey schoolishly, with somber faces and no regard for humor, but after all, what was the Trojan war but a camp of rough, flawed, over-the-top young men who made a few great sacrifices and sometimes were lucky, just as in a tale of the frontier, the Wild West, the cattle drive, or the gold rush? The social structures are somewhat different, and the background religion especially so, but the characters are much the same; you can see devious Odysseus in the cool-headed gamblers and sulky Achilles in the hot-headed young outlaws and the blunt Ajax in the dogged prospectors. The heroism of the one shows clearly the possibility of heroism in the other, and Harte takes full advantage of the parallels.

Favorite Passage: (From "A Protegee of Jack Hamlin")

They had luckily entered a narrow side street, and the sobs which shook the young girl's frame were unnoticed. For a few moments Jack felt a horrible conviction stealing over him, that in his present attitude towards her he was not unlike that hound Stratton, and that, however innocent his own intent, there was a sickening resemblance to the situation on the boat in the base advantage he had taken of her friendlessness. He had never told her that he was a gambler like Stratton, and that his peculiarly infelix reputation among women made it impossible for him to assist her, except by a stealth or the deception he had practiced, without compromising her. He who had for years faced the sneers and half-frightened opposition of the world dared not tell the truth to this girl, from whom he expected nothing and who did not interest him. He felt he was almost slinking at her side.

Recommendation: If you've read much in the way of short stories, you've probably already read a few. They are all worth reading at least once, and several of them are quite enjoyable. Recommended.

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