Adventures in Reading

Bret Harte on the short story

When I first mentioned this article to my partner he immediately laughed at me and asked if I was confusing the late 19th/early 20th century author Bret Harte with the professional wrestler Bret “the Hitman” Hart. No, I wasn’t, I assured him. In his “The Rise of the ‘Short Story’” published in July 1899 Harte explores the rise of the American short story specifically on the even of the likes of Irving and Hawthorne whom Harte describes as having a particular “English sentiment.”

“The literary man had little sympathy with the rough and half-civilised masses who were making his country’s history; if he used them at all it was as a foil to bring into greater relief his hero of the unmistakable English pattern.” Harte does glamorize America and the American west in particular as a hardy Utopia. Likewise, a la Edgar Allan Poe, Harte is partial to his own work and writerly interest. However, Harte does seem to be launching specifically into a stylized western and Californian technique that would very much become emblematic of modern American culture.

Harte does discuss the reception of his most American story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and its cold reception “as being ‘singular’ and ‘strange’.” Through continued publications, Harte’s works were gradually welcomed into literary circles as critics moved away from a more conservative literary basis. Harte expands that “It would seem evident, therefore, that the secret of the American short story was the treatment of characteristic American life, with absolute knowledge of it peculiarities and sympathy with its methods; with no fastidious ignoring of its habitual expression, or the inchoate poetry that may be found even hidden it its slang; with no moral determination except that which may be the legitimate outcome of the story itself; with no more elimination than may be necessary for the artistic conception, and never from the fear of the ‘fetish’ of conventionalism. Of such us the American short story of to-day—the gem American Literature to come.”

One point in Harte’s article that I enjoyed was a somewhat off the cuff remark of “the proverbial haste of American life was some inducement to its [the short story’s] brevity.” The other evening I had friends over and during a discussion of short stories we discussed the idea of the short story as working class literature versus the more leisure class novel. Perhaps in today’s world it’s more difficult to define the economic relationship of readers and literature, but the brevity of the short story does allow even the most over worked person an opportunity to experience a story. A novel demands a great length of time to read and regardless of the impoverished bank account of the English student it’s this time that is valuable. I admit, this is still not yet a fully worked out idea but I do find it quite fascinating.

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