|Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 1|
|A Tramp Through the Bret Harte Country
Reminiscences of Bret Harte. "Plain Language From Truthfulful James."
The Glamour of the Old Mining Towns
It is forty-four years since the writer met the author of "The Luck of Roaring Camp" - that wonderful blending within the limits of a short story of humor, pathos and tragedy - which, incredible as it may seem, met with but a cold reception from the local press, and was even branded as "indecent" and "immodest!"
On the occasion referred to, I was strolling on Rincon Hill - at that time the fashionable residence quarter of San Francisco - in company with Mr. J. H. Wildes, whose cousin, the late Admiral Frank Wildes, achieved fame in the battle of Manila Bay. Mr. Wildes called my attention to an approaching figure and said: "Here comes Bret Harte, a man of unusual literary ability. He is having a hard struggle now, but only needs the opportunity, to make a name for himself."
That opportunity arrived almost immediately. In the September number of the Overland Monthly, 1870, of which magazine Mr. Harte was then editor, appeared "Plain Language from Truthful James," or "The Heathen Chinee," as the poem was afterwards called. A few weeks later, to my amazement, while turning the pages of Punch in the Mercantile Library, I came across "The Heathen Chinee;" an unique compliment so far as my recollection of Punch serves. To this generous and instantaneous recognition of genius may be attributed in no small measure the rapid distinction won by Bret Harte in the world of letters.
Mr. Harte read his "Heathen Chinee" to Mrs. Wildes, some time before it was published. This lady, a woman of brilliant attainments and one who had a host of friends in old San Francisco, possessed the keenest sense of humor. Mr. Harte greatly valued her critical judgment. He was in the habit of reading his stories and poems to her for her opinion and decision, before publication, and it may well be that her hearty laughter and warm approval helped to strengthen his wavering opinion of the lines which convulsed Anglo-Saxondom; for no one was more surprised than he at the sensation they created. He had even offered the poem for publication to Mr. Ambrose Bierce, then editing the San Francisco News Letter; but Mr. Bierce, recognizing its merit, returned it to Mr. Harte and prevailed upon him to publish it in his own magazine.
Had one at that time encountered Mr. Harte in Piccadilly or Fifth Avenue, he would simply have been aware of a man dressed in perfect taste, but in the height of the prevailing fashion. On the streets of San Francisco, however, Bret Harte was always a notable figure, from the fact that the average man wore "slops," devoid alike of style or cut, and usually of shiny broadcloth. Broad-brimmed black felt hats were the customary headgear, completing a most funereal costume.
Mr. Harte impressed me as being singularly modest and utterly devoid of any form of affectation. To be well dressed in a period when little attention was paid clothes by the San Franciscan, might, it is true, in some men have suggested assumption of an air of superiority; but with Mr. Harte, to dress well was simply a natural instinct. His long, drooping moustache and the side-whiskers of the time - incongruous as the comparison may seem - called to mind the elder Sothern as "Lord Dundreary." His natural expression was pensive, even sad. When one considers that pathos and tragedy, perhaps even more than humor, pervade his stories, that was not surprising.
I had but recently arrived from England - a mere lad. California was still the land of gold and romance; the glamour with which Bret Harte surrounded both, that bids fair to be immortal, held me enthralled. Angel's, Rough and Ready, Sandy Bar, Poker Flat, Placerville, Tuolumne and old Sonora represented to me enchanted ground. Fate and life's vicissitudes prevented, except in imagination, a knowledge of the Sierra foot-hill counties; but in the back of my head all these years had persisted a determination to, at some time, visit a region close to the heart of every old Californian, and what better way than on foot?
In spite of Pullman cars and automobiles - or, rather, perhaps on account of them - the only way to see a country, to get into touch with Nature and meet the inhabitants on the dead level of equality and human sympathy, is to use Nature's method of locomotion. Equipped with a stout stick - with a view to dogs - a folding kodak camera, and your "goods and chattels" slung in a haversack across your shoulders, you feel independent of timecards and "routes;" and sally forth into the world with the philosophical determination to take things as they come; keyed to a pleasurable pitch of excitement by the knowledge that "Adventure" walks with you hand-in-hand, and that the "humors of the road" are yours for the seeing and understanding.