The Man Himself

Bret Harte, the American poet and author once so famous schools were named for him from New Jersey to California, used to work in San Francisco in a Federal style building directly across the street from the Gothic Revival building where I worked exactly a century later. He was married and lived in San Rafael, as did I. His wife was insanely jealous and they lived together only sixteen of the forty years they were married. My lovely wife and I have been quite happily married for forty-five years now, and must think about some suitable place to celebrate our anniversary next month. Little Rock in Arkansas seems a possibility if for no other reason than propinquity. We live in dull village an hour away. With an exception here and there, everyone is boring, a claim I can prove by calling as many witnesses as may be required by Your Honor. The words that fall from their lips will condemn them. There is no explaining it away; there is a relationship between dullness and decency. I’ve noticed it in myself; as I became more decent, I became duller. I might have the order reversed.
Samuel Clemens thought Harte was not a decent man because he had abandoned his wife and children financially. Nor, he wrote, did “The Immortal Bilk” pay back money borrowed from friends. Clemens was as severe about Harte’s work as his character. The kind of talking people did in “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” the short story that put Harte on the literary map, wasn’t heard in any gold rush camp Mark Twain ever was in. But what was hard for others was easy for Clemens; no writer had a better ear for common speech than the former river pilot. Yet allowance must be made for professional jealousy. Backstabbing is both sport and art form for writers, particularly if they are plowing the same ground. When it came time to name their community in the Mother Lode, the city fathers split the difference, naming it Twain Harte, putting the far better writer first. But Clemens wouldn’t have liked sharing the bill even if he got the bigger font.
Harte died after a career in diplomacy and was buried in Frimley, England, a name derived from the Saxon name Fremma’s Lea, which means “Fremma’s clearing.” The land was owned by Chertsey Abbey from 673 to 1537, and was a farming village and coach stop on Southhampton road for four hundred years. The Frimley Lunatic Asylum was opened in 1799, and eight years later they stopped chaining patients to the wall after magistrates stopped by. Daphne du Maurier wrote most of her fourth novel, Jamaica Inn, in Frimley in 1935, thirty-three years after Harte was put in the ground. She was damned good looking for a writer, which shouldn’t matter one way or another, but does. Take Carol Joyce Oates–please, as Henny Youngman said of his wife. She has the misfortune of having every word she writes published somewhere, and words pour from her like the lashing rain in monsoon season. Nine months after her husband of forty-six years died, Oates not only gave birth to a thick memoir of their marriage, but had remarried. This necessitated a later and substantial update. One imagines she hesitated over whether this new development was worth its own book, giving a more expansive space for her unquenching introspection. She writes a good paragraph in the time it takes you to brush your teeth. “A writer who has published as many books as I have has developed, of necessity, a hide like a rhino’s, while inside there dwells a frail, hopeful butterfly of a spirit,” she told the Paris Review nearly forty years ago when asked about her mighty tsunami of words. That was when she had thirty books behind her; now the total is upwards of seventy. Then there are the hundreds of essays, criticisms, poems and who knows what else. At one point she needed three publishers to get all those words out the door. Of course I’m jealous.
Harte shares the graveyard with Sir Frederick Charles Doveton Sturdee, the admiral who defeated the Germans at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914. The cross over his resting place includes hallowed timber from Nelson’s ship HMS Victory.
But this is a long wander from Fifth and Mission, where Harte worked for the U.S. Mint and I across the street for the Voice of the West, as the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed itself in its most efflorescent period. He had been a newspaperman himself for a time, as had Clemens. Harte was a printer’s helper and assistant editor at a local newspaper on Humboldt Bay, the site of present-day Arcata. In 1860 Harte was running the shop in the editor’s absence when as many as two hundred members of the Wiyot tribe were massacred. They stood in the way of the full completion of westward expansion and therefore had to die. Everyone seemed in agreement with that with the exception of the Wiyots. The editor likely had a better gauge of his readership than Harte and would not have written that “a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood; their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.”
This strong opinion offended the vigilantes who committed the atrocities, and Harte was advised to get out of town if he wanted to go on breathing. He packed his saddle bags and galloped south to San Francisco and literature. Or perhaps he rode a stagecoach or sailed down there in a schooner on the following wind. Whatever the means of travel, and we will not linger here, he landed on his feet. He was the first editor of the Overland Monthly where his parodies of other writers were acclaimed by those who thought they needed bringing down a peg or two. He was secretary of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco from 1864 until 1870 in addition to serving as a professor of modern literature at the University of California at Berkeley. That one man juggled all these jobs says the talent pool wasn’t deep, perhaps no better than a puddle. A literate man wasn’t as hard to find as a gold nugget, but it was probably close. Who knows what duties “secretary” meant at the time, but I doubt it was what goes by that name today. In our esteem-driven age, the secretary has been promoted to administrative assistant or office professional. When these no longer conceal a lowly standing on the corporate ladder, others will be found. The nation may be in decline but the coining of euphemisms remains a robust industry.
Harte’s grandfather was in on the founding of the New York Stock Exchange, which may explain the author’s robber-baron approach to financial arrangements. He left California for the East Coast and a job with the Atlantic Monthly at a princely salary, roughly $140,000 in today’s money. But in time his work grew stale. “A whispering pine of the Sierras transplanted to Fifth Avenue! How could it grow? Although it shows some faint signs of life, how sickly are the leaves!” wrote Andrew Carnegie, the rags-to-riches plutocrat and philanthropist who indulged a yen to write from time to time. It seems men were more rounded then. Others agreed with Carnegie and Harte’s career languished. He was reduced to writing a jingle for a soap company before he landed a sinecure in the consular service that took him to Germany, Scotland and eventually the graveyard in Frimley.

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