Thursday, March 25, 2010

On "Selected Stories and Sketches" by Bret Harte ***

This collection edited by David Wyatt and published by Oxford University Press seems a good introduction to Harte's work, providing both stories and short nonfiction sketches. One gets a feeling for California in the late 1800s--the racism, the obsession with riches, the beauty of the landscape. Harte was a magnificent stylist. Few writers of the period probably match him on a sentence level. And yet, Harte's work has largely fallen into disfavor. Unfortunately, this disfavor is, I think, fairly justified. While Harte works with many of the tropes that would come to dominate the western genre--the figure of the gambler, for example, is front and center, and lynch parties and gunfights aren't uncommon--his stories often don't seem to hold up very well.

Some have accused him of sentimentalism, and the accusation seems accurate. Often, in reading a particular story, I got to its end and felt let down. Some characters are just too good. Some characters are too evil. And endings often just drop off the page, a day done, everything made right, and isn't that character of righteous action oh such a good person? When Harte is at his best, the righteous aren't so nice, and the bad are more self-interested than illogically evil, and the world is a tough place in which to dwell. Watching characters manage in that is much more fascinating than letting them dominate as we would expect or desire.

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