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The following review appeared 4 November 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In the 1870's, Bret Harte (1836-1902) became the highest paid writer in America--his fame born in his vivid stories of the old West and California gold rush mining camps. A friend and cohort of Samuel Clemens, he later fell out of favor with Clemens and became the subject of some of Clemens' bitterest written and verbal outrages. Harte is the subject of two biographies just released this fall. Both books--Gary Scharnhorst's Bret Harte, Opening the American Literary West and Axel Nissen's Bret Harte, Prince and Pauper lay claim to being the first Bret Harte biography in seventy years to be written from primary resources.
Gary Scharnhorst, professor of English at the University of New Mexico and coeditor of American Literary Realism, is a familiar name in the world of Twain research with his numerous published contributions to both Twain and Harte scholarship. His book is Volume Seventeen in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series. Axel Nissen, associate professor of American literature at the University of Oslo, Norway, is a new name to the world of Twain scholarship. His book is derived from his 1997 doctoral thesis.
Scharnhorst, in his source notes, refers to Nissen's previous work as a valuable detailed record that is "marred by its search for evidence of homoeroticism in Harte's life and writing" (Scharnhorst, 238). Nissen's acknowledgments include a note of thanks to Scharnhorst among others for assistance and encouragement.
Both books are well researched and written in a style that will appeal to the general reader as well as literary researcher. Scharnhorst's book is prefaced with an explanation that all volumes in the Oklahoma Western Biographies series carry no reference notes. Thus, readers who wish to pin down exact sources for his research will have difficulty doing so. However, to Scharnhorst's credit, he advises that he has deposited a fully documented copy of his manuscript with the University of New Mexico English Department library. Although his book contains no formal bibliography, the final section is an extensive discussion of resources and editorial commentary on previously published Harte research. Nissen's book contains extensive reference notes and formal bibliography. Both books provide the reader with a different assortment of black and white photos.
Both authors draw essentially from the same primary sources including Harte's letters, diaries, letters of contemporaries, and documents held by Harte's descendants. Unfortunately, there appear to be only two letters and one inscribed photo from Clemens to Harte that have survived. None of Anna Harte's letters to her husband have survived.
Both Scharnhorst and Nissen present a similar picture of Harte's family background; early life; marriage; his literary work in California; and his rise to national fame as editor of the West coast journal Overland Monthly. Nissen diverges at this point in his biography to present his theory of "brotherly love" found in "The Luck of Roaring Camp"--a story that caught the attention of East coast editors. Both authors document Harte's trek across America to take the literary world of Boston by storm; his troubled financial and family life and downward spiral on the East coast; his diplomatic years in Germany and Scotland which led to a twenty year separation from his wife and family; his success as a writer away from America; and his final years as a "kept" man in England by Madame Hydeline Van De Velde. One of the most significant differences between the books regards the Harte and Clemens relationship.
Both authors recount the initial meeting between Clemens and Harte in San Francisco where Harte was working at the U.S. Mint and also editing the literary journal Californian. Clemens contributed to Harte's journal and Harte is depicted as the colleague who encouraged Clemens to publish his jumping frog story. In one of the few errors in Scharnhorst's book, Saturday Gazette (as opposed to Saturday Press) is incorrectly identified as the original publisher of the jumping frog story.
Both authors agree that Harte lent a valuable editorial hand when it came time for Clemens to polish his manuscript for Innocents Abroad slated for released by American Publishing Company in 1869. Harte gave Innocents Abroad a favorable review after publication; however, the oversight of providing Harte with his personal review copy led to animosity between the two writers. It is also within the analysis of this misunderstanding that Scharnhorst begins to pull ahead of Nissen when it comes to adeptly identifying characters within Harte's stories that are based on Samuel Clemens. Scharnhorst proposes that in Harte's "The Iliad of Sandy Bar," published in 1870, the characters of two quarreling miners Matthew Scott and Henry York are based on Harte and Clemens respectively. Scharnhorst theorizes that "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" was Harte's "open invitation to Clemens to bury the hatchet" (Scharnhorst, 48).
By 1870 Clemens had married and relocated to New York where he edited the Buffalo Express. In 1871 Harte also left California to accept a position with the prestigious Atlantic Monthly journal at an unprecedented yearly contract of $10,000 (equivalent to over $100,000 in today's dollars.) Harte's dismal spiral and inability to produce works to fulfill his contract in a timely fashion would eventually lead to editor William Dean Howells turning to Clemens for his story "Old Times on the Mississippi." Both Scharnhorst and Nissen agree that Clemens' hand in recruiting Harte to write his first novel Gabriel Conroy for American Publishing Company began to drive another wedge between the two writers when the novel turned out to be a dismal sales failure.
The final collaboration between Harte and Clemens was the play "Ah Sin" which Scharnhorst describes as "arguably the most disastrous collaboration in the history of American letters" (Scharnhorst, xiv). Scharnhorst tells readers that Harte and Clemens quarreled after completing the draft of the script. Nissen provides his readers more detail on the final break resulting from the "Ah Sin" collaboration and quotes extensively from Clemens' autobiography regarding an alleged insult that Harte made against Clemens' wife Livy. Nissen dates the final break between the two writers as March 1, 1877 when Harte wrote Clemens a long accusatory letter. According to Nissen, "Harte appears never to have given his lost friend so much as a passing thought after they parted forever in 1877" (Nissen, 191). According to Scharnhorst's theory, that's not so.
Harte's departure from America, where his literary flame was all but extinguished, came with a diplomatic appointment first to Germany in 1878 and later to Scotland. It was an appointment that Clemens lobbied against in his private letters and is well documented by both Scharnhorst and Nissen. Clemens wrote to his colleague William Dean Howells, "To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much" (Scharnhorst, 139).
Although Harte's diplomatic career ended in 1885 when a new U.S. Presidential administration took office, he never returned stateside to reunite with his family. Ten years later in 1895, Clemens was still heaping verbal abuse Harte's way--this time via an interview from Australia that was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. According to Scharnhorst, Harte himself may have provoked this outburst. In a theory differing from Nissen's "never more a passing thought" theory--Scharnhorst proposes that Harte's 1893 story "An Ingenue of the Sierras" dramatized an embarrassing and little-known episode in Clemens' early career. Scharnhorst's theory is based on the probability that as editor of the Buffalo Express in 1870, Clemens had written a parody of Harte's famous poem "Plain Language from Truthful James." The parody in question was titled "Three Aces" signed by Carl Byng, a name thought to be Clemens' pseudonym. Clemens denied authorship of "Three Aces" when it was criticized as a feeble imitation of Bret Harte's previous work. Scharnhorst proposes that Harte's story of a highwayman who plunders and "sails under false colors" is a retaliation at Clemens. Although evidence of Clemens' authorship of "Three Aces" was not strong enough to prompt Joseph McCullough and Janice McIntire-Strasburg to include it in their collection of Mark Twain at the Buffalo Express, it is a theory which is not as implausible as a theory put forth by Nissen.
In a chapter titled "The Scent of Heliotrope," Nissen decides to hitch his Bret Harte theory to Andrew Hoffman's "Mark Twain and Homosexuality" theory (published in American Literature, 1995): "Is it possible to have two close relationships end with such passion if the relationships themselves had not been passionate?" (Nissen [quoting Hoffman], 240). The support put forth by Nissen to uphold his theory is that the best evidence of intimacy between Harte and his relationships with men were in his methods of addressing them. Nissen writes that Harte's "surviving letters show that there were only four men outside his family whom Harte addressed by their Christian names" (Nissen, 239). The four were Charles Warren Stoddard (a known homosexual), Charles Watrous, Arthur Collins and Mark Twain. Nissen leads his readers to question the possible relationship of Harte with all four.
Nissen's climactic theory will not come as a surprise to his readers. Throughout his book he has taken the position that Harte's relations with several women were truly platonic. Scharnhorst, on the other hand, has hinted that Harte was being discreet in affairs with other women for his wife's sake.
Each book wraps up with the death of Harte. Scharnhorst provides readers with a bit more detail regarding how Harte's immediate family finished out their lives. In one questionable comment Scharnhorst states that Clemens made headlines by refusing to contribute to a charitable fund to aid Harte's surviving daughter when she had fallen on hard times. This is in contrast to a New York Times article dated January 30, 1907 wherein Clemens provided a letter of support for aid for Harte's daughter. The lack of source notes in Scharnhorst's book makes it difficult to resolve this discrepancy.
While Scharnhorst's Bret Harte is the shorter work without reference notes, it offers greater insight into how the Harte and Clemens relationship was reflected in Harte's writing. Nissen's Bret Harte contains a wealth of facts and research that contribute to Harte scholarship. However, his theory built around "only four first names" is one that lacks credibility.