Life on the frontier as seen in the early sketches and tales of Bret Harte
Resnick, Robert Benjamin
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The spirit of the miner and frontiersman was not always one of pathos or loneliness. The simplicity of their existence made for a humor and self-confidence not to be found elsewhere in America. Theirs, as Harte expresses it, was a humor of democracy in which hardship, danger, and death were endured by being made light of. Cynicism could not be afforded on the frontier. The tendency to minimize rather than exaggerate a situation was a very singular element in the humor of the West and in the humor of Harte. Harte's treatment of the Spanish and Mexican civilizations in early California is important in that it not only gives the reader an historical background of the far West but prepares him for the incongruities which came about when Old and New World cultures clashed. Harte, generally sympathetic to the Spaniards and Mexicans, found an element in the mode of their existence which he took time to criticize and almost sneer at: namely, the Spanish Catholic church. In "The Legend of Monte del Diablo,'' for example, Spanish padres are made the objects of ridicule at the hands of a Devil who can see nothing but Anglo-Saxons and the hordes of gold which they are carrying out of California. The system of lasting partnerships was one of the more particular and romantic elements of pioneer existence. Loneliness and rampant lawlessness were two of the main reasons for the formation of partnerships. Harte's best example of loyalty of one man for another is his "Tennessee's Partner." In this story he shows where even death cannot separate the devotion which the one man has for the other. "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" is another famous example in which the theme is undying friendship. Here we see that love, time, and distance cannot rupture the devotion of Scott and York for each other. Harte always ends a story of broken friendship with the feeling that the parties concerned have either already become reconciled or will be so in the future. Gambling was tolerated in California till about 1855. Before this time--and it is with these years that Harte was concerned--the John Oakhursts and Jack Hamlins of California retained almost complete control of the destinies of many men. They lived virtually by the turn of a card. Harte in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" gives us one of the best stories in which the philosophy of a gambler is tested to the limit. Oakhurst, whose steel nerve and steady right hand were the weapons of his existence, finally recognized his defeat at the hands of Mother Nature and "cashed in his chips." The fatalism that was the gambler's and the superstitions which accompanied that fatalism helped to set apart the California tempo--the easy-come-easy-go mode of existence--from that of the rest of the United States and even the world. The two reasons for the rampant lawlessness in the early West were the irresponsibility of the pioneers and their attitude toward the foreign elements in California. Dueling was one of the main sources of lawlessness. This system of revenging one's honor was carried over into California by the Southern element which indeed made up a sizeable portion of the society. The inimitable Colonel Starbottle as well as Oakhurst and Hamlin are the most famous professors of the dueling system in Harte's stories. It is Starbottle who is always holding himself "personally responsible" for the slightest intimation of flawlessness in his character. Harte, generally, is not sympathetic to dueling and only in a rare ease does he make the exception of sympathizing with the original challenger of a duel. Aside from the duel there was the lawlessness of theft and murder. Again, in "Tennessee's Partner," to take a prime example, we see that the Vigilance Committee was not slow in catching up with the wayward Tennessee or in doling out justice to him for the robberies he had committed. There is a singular and almost pathetic incident of carrying out the law, in the same story, when Tennessee's partner tries to bribe the jury into letting Tennessee go. This act is not accompanied by any willful malice on the partner's part, but it does show both the ignorance of the law on the part of many pioneers such as Tennessee and the attitude of confidence in the simple law of the West on the part of the jurors. Because of the fact that there were few women and children on the California frontier, those women and children who were there were looked upon and worshipped as creatures few and far between. But a woman was not only regarded as a creature of beauty--as was Jo Folinsbee--but as an idol of respect as well. Women such as Miggles, M'liss, and Jenny McClosky, who maintained their self-respect and femininity in spite of physical hardships and forced loneliness, represent the feminine element of California society which drew the courtesy and reverence of the roughest and toughest men on the frontier. Children, too, because they were in the minority and because they were forced to spend the formative years of their lives in a comparatively bare environment, were looked upon sympathetically and affectionately. The "Luck'' of Roaring Camp was the cause of a minor tumult because he was a rarity. We see how cursing is forbidden because of him and how the poor Kentuck does not forget--to his dying day--that the Luck had "wrastled' with his finger when he was less than an hour old. Bret Harte, from his early Bohemian days in San Francisco to the time he left California, is in extreme sympathy with the Chinese in Western society. He bitterly describes the brutal treatment of the "heathen" element in "Wan Lee" and in "An Episode of Fiddletown." Stoning to death, the refusal of permits to ride in local vehicles, robbery, and general man-handling were several of the afflictions the Chinese suffered at the hands of the Anglo-Saxons. The fact that Bret Harte in his own veins contained the blood of a persecuted people might be taken to account for his sympathy towards the Chinese.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University
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