Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wrestling With Bret Harte

One of the many things my good coworkers at the Used Books buying desk do is keep me from temptation. At least they try. When a new release of Library of America classics comes all at once, and an employee shopping day, when our discount goes up, is but a month away, dear J. returns my stack of same to the shelf, reminding me that the books will still be there when I can better afford them. Sometimes, after a good talking to, I have even been persuaded to wait. Not often, you understand, but sometimes. When some beautiful boxed sets from a subscriber to the British Folio Society come in, dear T., while never actually discouraging me, has been know to gently wonder how I plan to get the ones I've set aside home. It's really very sweet. Neither imagines I can be talked out of acquiring more books than I can possibly ever read, but they both do their best to urge a cooling-off-period, now and then, before I again max-out my store-charge.

Having other, trusted buyers working with me at the desk, I am seldom inclined to second guess what is put back into boxes and rejected. But if I happen to be there, without meaning any disrespect to their judgments, I will occasionally be unable to resist having a peek. My only thought is selfish: I don't worry either might be rejecting salable stock, I'm only worried some marvelous old treasure for my personal collection might be passed over. My coworkers know me, and often as not, should they see some venerable but unfamiliar corpse at the bottom of a box, they will bring it to my attention, just on the chance I might squeal with delighted recognition, "Ooooh, Edmund Gosse!" or something like. But then there are the books I don't know but that I might want even without having elicited any squealing on my part, books that look good, but that aren't quite my usual kind of thing, or by an author I've never collected, but might be curious enough about to warrant a second or third look. In other words, book for which I have no earthly reason to insist we buy since I'm not sure we will be able even to sell them to me. How will I know though, unless we buy them and I have a few days to paw and peruse them?

Bret Harte is not the sort of American author for whom I've ever had much use. I remember him only from the one story American school children used always to read, The Luck of Roaring Camp, and that I remember none too fondly. Gold prospectors, wasn't it? I do remember cracker dialect, a western setting, and the kind of bluff, masculine, 19th Century American humor that has always made me cringe, from Tall Tales to Ring Lardner. Even Twain, in many an early story, when he's seated on the barrel with the straw in his teeth, his foot on a spittoon, can be too redolent of the shabby town square, the county fair cow-sheds and horse auctions of my childhood for my taste and present comfort. I don't much like knee and back slapping men. Perhaps I remember too well what such men traditionally made of sissies. Bret Harte then, to my mind, represented just such sly heartiness.

I can't say that that impression was entirely wrong. I haven't been able to turn up a single story of his at the bookstore. The only copies we've stocked in years would all seem to have been used books, sold on the cheap and none now in stock. Harte hasn't made it into the Library of America yet either.

What we did get across the buying desk was an attractively bound copy of The Letters of Bret Harte, edited by his son, Geoffrey Bret Harte, 1926. This T., I think it was, had already returned to the seller's box when I plucked it out again, drawn always to that word, "Letters," and admiring the dun cover, embossed with a brown Pan playing his pipes. I decided we might look the book up on the Internet. Not worth much, as it turned out. It would seem school kids stopped reading The Luck of Roaring Camp some time ago. No one seems much to care anymore about Mr. Harte. I decided to research a little further though.

It didn't take much to learn though that he was something of a dandy, a quality I appreciate in others, that he was a snob, which even the best people sometimes are, and that he preferred to live in England, something I've come to like in American writers generally.

But it seems Mark Twain, having been in youth a friend to the elder writer, then still but a youngster himself, though a successful San Francisco magazine editor, eventually decided that Bret Harte was a drunken scoundrel; was ashamed of his Jewish heritage, wrote inauthentically for years about the westerners that made his name, quarrelled with his every friend, and eventually abandoned his family to take various diplomatic postings and live abroad like a lord on borrowed money. A thoroughly bad character, said Mr. Twain, and few it seems would have disagreed. Yet here was a book full of charming, funny letters -- when I began to read a few -- and many of these to the wife and children he avoided for twenty, liquored years. That was interesting. And then there was the story, previously unknown to me, of Harte, while still a green newspaperman, getting temporary charge of his paper, and running a brutally accurate account, with a stinging editorial, of a massacre of Indians by white settlers and being promptly fired and barely escaping from town with his skin. Very interesting indeed, specially for such a reprobate.

And then, almost by chance, I came across a poem Harte wrote. In 1870, Harte was the editor of The Overland Monthly, and learning of the sudden death of his idol, he held the piece he'd written and the magazine's presses, while he wrote the poem reproduced here as a separate entry, "Dickens in Camp." Reading that lovely, perfectly sentimental poem, I had to think there was something about Mr. Harte I liked very much, might even learn to love. And Dickens admired Harte's writing, had in fact written to the brash, young American inviting him to write for Dickens' own magazine. Harte never had the chance. Dickens' letter to him came after Dickens' sudden death, and obviously after Harte's tribute had already been published. Harte might well have been a dipsomaniac and a bad loan, and he may yet prove not to my taste as a humorist, but no one who could write so of Charles Dickens could really be such a thoroughly bad character.

We took the book of letters, though it hasn't been priced yet, and I've not yet bought it. Seems Bret Harte is more interesting than I remembered. I've decided the matter needs some more thought. I think that admirable restraint on my part.

1 comment:

  1. Mark Twain was older than Bret Harte, and mean-spirited with regard to his old friend.