Harte was born on 25 August 1836 in Albany, New York, into a family, originally Jewish immigrants. He seems to have left school at 13, and moved to California a few years later, where he worked in a variety of jobs. Having tried to make a living in the gold mining towns, he became a messenger for the Wells Fargo stagecoach company, guarding treasure boxes, before trying his hand as a teacher first then as a journalist. He reported on the 1860 killing of indigenous people at Tuluwat for San Francisco and New York newspapers. Having condemned the massacre, his own life was threatened, and he moved to San Francisco. One there, it is believed he authored an anonymous letter to the press describing widespread community approval of the massacre.
In 1860, Harte became editor of The Golden Era and set about turning it into a more literary publication; and in 1862 he married Anna Griswold. By this time, he was publishing poetry, romantic short stories about the Californian Gold Rush, as well as satirical prose. Some of his work was taken up by The Atlantic Monthly, edited by James Thomas Fields. In 1868, he became editor of the new literary magazine, Overland Monthly, which, two years later, published his poem Plain Language from Truthful James or, as it was better known, The Heathen Chinee. This narrative poem, satirising anti-Chinese sentiment, was widely republished, bringing Harte considerable fame. In search of furthering his literary career he moved to New York, and then Boston, and became contracted, at a high salary, to The Atlantic Monthly. His popularity did not last long, and by the end of 1872 the contract was over, and selling stories was becoming increasingly difficult.
Life remained tough for Harte until, in 1878, he went alone to Germany to take a position as US consul in Krefeld, and then, in 1880, in Glasgow, UK. Though he wrote to his family (Anna and four children) and continued to support them, he never returned to the US (nor did they visit them him in Europe). In 1885, he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his literary ambitions. He died in 1902. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poem Hunter, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Harte kept a diary for a few months in 1857-1858. Bret Harte (American Book Company, 1941) by Joseph B. Harrison quotes from it but once. Gary Scharnhorst, in Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), provides an extract from 31 December 1857: ‘Before I close this Journal containing but a small portion of last years doings let me indulge in a retrospect. I am at the commencement of this year - a teacher at a Salary of $25 per mo - last year at this time I was unemployed. Last year I thought I was in love - this year I think the same tho the object is a different one. ... I have added to my slight stock of experiences and have suffered considerable. Ah! well did the cynical Walpole say life is a comedy to those who think - a tragedy to those who feel. - I both think and feel. My life is a mixture of broad caricature and farce when I think of others, it is a melodrama when I feel for myself. In these 365 days I have again put forth a feeble essay toward fame and perhaps fortune. - I have tried literature albeit in an humble way - successfully - I have written some poetry: passable and some prose (good) which have been published. . . . Therefore I consecrate this year or as much as God may grant for my service - to honest heartfelt sincere labor and devotion to this occupation. - God help me - may I succeed.’
Axel Nissen, in his biography, Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), refers to Harte’s diary more often but notes that he made his last entry on 5 March 1858. Here are two paragraphs of Nissen’s text, largely sourced on Harte’s diary.
‘Each day he would conscientiously record the day’s lessons in his diary, in addition to his own quotidian activities. One day was much like the other: school in the morning Monday through Saturday, a trip to town in the afternoon or a shooting expedition, alone or with one of the boys. During the five months Harte kept the diary, he painstakingly recorded every duck, meadowlark, teal, widgeon, and ring-necked and buttheaded plover he brought down. It was almost an obsession. Rain or shine, sick or well, he tramped out to the marshes with his gun after school, sometimes also in the morning before breakfast. On December 10, for example, he recorded that he shot a duck (“but couldn’t get him”), a teal, and a snipe, and remarked with evident satisfaction: “I am improving in my skill, and of late have made good success [one word illegible] shooting. However I must try to persevere in other things.” His hunting expeditions were an escape from the claustrophobia of living among strangers and gave him time to think. He got himself a dog. Bones, to keep him company. The diary gives us an impression of a sober, serious-minded, industrious, and critical young man - early to bed and early to rise - thoughtful and a mite restless in his country isolation.’
‘But there was also a darker side to his existence. The diary gives ample evidence of depression and even despair. Only a few days after moving in with the Liscombs, he came home from Sunday service “very blue and discontented.” A month later, on Thanksgiving, there was a dancing party in town. Everyone was there; Harte tried to dance, found he couldn’t, and was ‘‘very much annoyed.” He came home “incontinently” in the pouring rain and spent a restless night. Christmas Day was even worse. He helped Maggie prepare the meal, and they had Christmas dinner with the Martins and her in-laws. He was feeling quite melancholy by this point, and attendance at a dance in the evening only made it worse. ‘‘What the d....d am I to do with myself,” he scratched down desperately in his diary, ‘‘the simplest pleasures fail to please me - my melancholy and gloomy foreboding stick to me closer than a brother. I cannot enjoy myself rationally like others but am forced to make a gloomy spectacle of myself to gods and men.” The “thermometer of my spirits,” as he analyzed it that day, had started at 40 degrees temperate in the morning, risen to eighty by 3 P.M., fallen all the way down to zero by 9 P.M., and by 1 A.M., he was still awake and twenty below.’
All Harte’s biographers find useful information in the published diary of the wife of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly: Annie Fields - Memories of a hostess: A chronicle of eminent friendships, drawn chiefly from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields by M. A. DeWolfe Howe (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922). Here are several extracts about Harte.
5 September 1871
‘J. went to Boston. I wrote in the pastures and walked all the morning. Coming home, after dinner, came a telegram for me to meet J. and Bret Harte at Beverly station with the pony carriage. I drove hard to catch the train, but arrived in season, glad to take up the two good boys and show them Beverly shore. [. . .] Mr. Harte had much to say of the beautiful flowers of California, roses being in bloom about his own house there every month in the year. He found the cloudless skies and continued drought of California very hard to bear. For the first time in my life I considered how terrible perpetual cloudlessness would be! He thinks there is no beauty in the mountains of California, hard, bare, snowless peaks. Neither are there trees, nor any green grass.
He is delighted with the fragrant lawns of Newport and has, I believe, put into verse a delightful ghost story which he told us. He has taken a house of some antiquity in Newport, connected with which is the story of a lady who formerly lived there and who was very fond of the odor of mignonette. The flower was always growing in her house, and after her death, at two o’clock every night, a strong odor has always been perceived passing through the house as if wafted along by the garments of a woman. One night at the appointed hour, but entirely unconnected in his thought with the story Mr. Harte had long ago heard, he was arrested in his work by a strong perfume of mignonette which appeared to sweep by him. He looked about, thinking his wife might have placed a vase of flowers in the room, but finding nothing he began to follow the odor, which seemed to flit before him. Then he recalled, for the first time, the story he had heard. He opened the door; the odor was in the hall; he opened the room where the lady died, but there was no odor there; until returning, after making a circuit of the house, he found a faint perfume as if she had passed but not stayed there also. At last, somewhat oppressed perhaps by the ghostliness of the place and hour, he went out and stood upon the porch. There his dream vanished. The sweet lawn and tree flowers were emitting an odor, as is common at the hour when dews congeal, more sweet than at any other time of day or night, and the air was redolent of sweets which might easily be construed into mignonette. The story was well told and I shall be glad to see his poem. [. . .]
Mr. Harte is a very sensitive and nervous man. He struggles against himself all the time. He sat on the piazza with J. and talked till a late hour. This morning at breakfast I found him most interesting. He talked of his early and best-loved books. It appears that at the age of nine he was a lover and reader of Montaigne. Certain writers, he says, seem to him to stand out as friends and brothers side by side in literature. Now Horace and Montaigne are so associated in his mind. Mr. Emerson, he thinks, never in the least approaches a comprehension of the character of the man. With an admiration for his great sayings, he has never guessed at the subtle springs from which they come. The pleasant acceding to both sides in politics, and other traits of like nature, gives him affinity with Hawthorne. By the way, he is a true appreciator of Hawthorne. He was moved to much merriment yesterday by remembering a passage in the notes, where he slyly remarks, “Margaret Fuller’s cows hooked the other cows.” Speaking of Dr. Bartol, he said, “What a dear old man he is! A venerable baby, nothing more.” But Harte is most kindly and tender. His wife has been very ill and has given him cause for terrible anxiety. This accounts for much left undone, but he is an oblivious man oftentimes to his surroundings - leaves things behind!!’
12 January 1872
‘Bret Harte was here at breakfast. It is curious to see his feeling with regard to society. For purely literary society, with its affectations and contempts, he has no sympathy. He has at length chosen New York as his residence, and among the Schuylers, Sherwoods, and their friends he appears to find what he enjoys. There is evidently a gene about people and life here, and provincialisms which he found would hurt him. He is very sensitive and keen, with a love and reverence for Dickens almost peculiar in this coldly critical age. Bryant he finds very cold and totally unwilling to lead the conversation, as he should do when they are together, as he justly remarks, he being so much younger - but never a word without cart and horses to fetch it. Bret Harte has a queer absent-minded way of spending his time, letting the hours slip by as if he had not altogether learned their value yet. It is a miracle to us how he lives, for he writes very little. Thus far I suppose he has had money from J. R. O. & Co., but I fancy they have done with giving out money save for a quid pro quo.’
18 September 1875
‘Bret Harte came on the 1⁄2 past 12 train. He came in good health, save a headache which ripened as the day went on; but he was bubbling over with fun, full of the most natural and unexpected sallies. He wished to know if I was acquainted with the Cochin China hen. They had one at Cohasset. They had named him Benventuro (after a certain gay Italian singer of strong self-appreciation who came formerly to America). He said this hen’s state of mind on finding a half-exploded fire-cracker and her depressed condition since its explosion was something extraordinary. His description was so vivid that I still see this hen perambulating about the house, first with pride, second with precipitation, fallen into disgrace among her fellows. He said Cohasset was not the place to live in the summer if one wanted sea-breezes. They all came straight from Chicago!! He fancied the place, thinking it an old fishing village, not unlike Yarmouth. Instead of which they prided themselves upon never having “any of your sea-smells,” and, being five miles from the doctor, could not be considered a cheerful place to live in with sick children. He said he was surprised to find J. T. F. without a sailor’s jacket and collar. The actors among whom he had been living rather overdid the business; their collars were wider, their shirts fuller, and their trousers more bulgy than those of any real sailor he had ever observed, and the manner of hitching up the trousers was entirely peculiar to themselves and to the stage. [. . .]
Harte said in speaking of Longfellow that no one had yet overpraised him. The delicate quality of humor, the exquisite fineness in the choice of words, the breadth and sweetness of his nature were something he could hardly help worshipping. One day after a dinner at Mr. Lowell’s he said, “I think I will not have a carriage to return to town. I will walk down to the Square.” “I will walk with you,” said Longfellow. When they arrived at his gate, he said, he was so beautiful that he could only think of the light and whiteness of the moon, and if he had stayed a moment longer he should have put his arms around him and made a fool of himself then and there. Whereat he said good night abruptly and turned away.
He brought his novel and play with him which are just now finished, for us to read. He has evidently enjoyed the play, and he enjoys the fame and the money they both bring him.
He is a dramatic, lovable creature with his blue silk pocket-handkerchief and red dressing slippers and his quick feelings. I could hate the man who could help loving him - or the woman either.’