One mark of the short story's disreputable image as an art form is that Bret Harte, whose stories have been scorned as the work of a literary, is often cited by literary historians as one of the most important influences on the form's development. Noting that Harte was a skillful but not a profound writer, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time, Wallace Stegner says that no historian of the short story can overlook his shaping influence on the form. Indeed such early historians of the form as H. S. Canby and Fred Lewis Pattee agree that Harte is second only to Washington Irving in his influence on the American short story. Although Pattee says Harte's "influence was far greater than the quality of his work entitled him to exert," he lists six distinctive contributions he made to the form: atmosphere of locality, new Western humor, paradox and antithesis, individualized types, impressionism, and a self-conscious sense of technique. Edward O'Brien says: "Harte is far from being the greatest of American story writers, but he is probably the most representative of the characteristic qualities and weaknesses, and historically he may prove to have been our most influential man."
Such judgments do little to encourage taking another look at Bret Harte's stories. However, H. S. Canby was reluctant to consign Harte to the ash heap of history. After dutifully pointing out Harte's sentimentalism and the stereotyped nature of his characters, Canby asked, somewhat plaintively: "What gives these characters their lasting power? Why does that highly melodramatic tragedy in the hills above Poker Flat, with its stagy reformations, and contrasts of black sinner and white innocent, hold you spell-bound at the thirtieth as at the first reading?"
Harte poses a particular problem for the conflict between realism and romance that beset narrative fiction in America in the latter part of the century. For if his stories were not based on reality, what made people think they were? The question becomes, what kind of reality do Harte's plots and characters refer to? Harte once said he aimed to be the Washington Irving of the Pacific coast. And indeed his stories are closely related to the folklore of a region, much as Irving's "Rip Van Winkle" and "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" are rooted in the cultural transition from the old Dutch settlers to the establishment of New York.
However, Harte differs from Irving in that his characters derive not from European folklore stories, but rather seemingly from actuality. Thus, for Harte to create a mythic world in California, he could not rely on received tales, but must rather find the materials to create his own. Harte's creation of the stuff of fable in the world of fact helps explain how local color formed the roots of the realistic movement. Harte is a realist in that he tries to create the illusion that the events in his stories could actually happen and that the characters are as-if-real, rather than that the events were derived from folklore as they are in the stories of Irving or that the characters are the figures of parable, as they are in the stories of Hawthorne.
This grounding of characters and events in a specific regional area creates the illusion of realism often attributed to Harte. By presenting burly and coarse‑talking miners as gentle father-figures, hard and brittle gamblers as philosophical Hamlets, and gaudily‑painted prostitutes as self-sacrificing martyrs, Harte tried to show that beneath the surface of one's external persona lie unexamined depths when a crisis or a novel situation arises to stimulate them. It may be in Harte's hands a crude kind of psychology, but it is the same convention that Chekhov and Joyce use later with much more subtlety and success, when the secret life of the protagonist of "Lady with the Pet Dog" is felt to be more real than the life he lives as a social persona in the world. The reason this has always been a part of the short story convention derives from its romance source, which, as Northrop Frye has said, focuses more on character as psychic projection and idealization, rather than social persona.
Fred Lewis Pattee knew that Harte's language and characters are drawn from his knowledge of books, not his knowledge of life, pointing out the influence of Washington Irving on Harte's narrator voice and the influence of Charles Dickens on his creation of character. Pattee calls attention to Harte's apprenticeship in writing parodies and travesties: "For the student of Harte, Condensed Novels has a value altogether out of proportion to its own worth. It is the leading document for one who would trace all the elements in the evolution of the Bret Harte short story." By writing travesties of Dumas and others he had learned the secrets of paradox, antithesis, lightness of touch, the epigrammatic ending. Pattee also notes that the secret of Harte's creation of character is that he learned from Dickens the art of "creating what in reality is a realm of Munchausen, and then, miracle of miracles, of actually breathing into it the breath of life."
Pattee makes a good point about the short story in general. One critic noted that when reading a Raymond Carver story, one feels that one is in a model kitchen at Sears, for even as things look real, there is something curiously unreal about the objects that surround us. E.T.A. Hoffman realized before Harte that when placed inside worlds that seemed to be real, projective characters acted curiously like automatons and curiously real at once. Bartleby is just such a character. Harte's characters are not real people, but rather puppets acting as if they were real. Kleist dealt with the same realization. In Harte, we have characters striving to be more real than the characters in the stories of Hawthorne by being placed in what many readers took to be the real world of California.
Another important aspect of Harte's mastery of the short story form is the fact that what holds a Harte story together is not plot but theme. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a clear example. In the first three paragraphs, the reader is introduced to the central themes: the all male world, the men acting as one, and the novel nature of a birth in a place where death is more common (an obvious thematic presage of the story's conclusion). Also introduced in the opening paragraphs is the voice of the story--not the voice of the inhabitants of Roaring Camp, but of an educated observer. If one asks where this observer is standing to describe the goings on of the story, one is closer to the truth if one sees him in a theater watching a melodrama rather than in the town watching the inhabitants.
As a result of this sense of melodrama conventions, the characters are stereotyped and the landscape is stylized. The addition of a narrative voice to the stage play creates a tension not previously present. In spite of the fact that the story is aiming toward death, the opening birth scenes are inevitably comic, for as the single woman of the camp labors within, the whole camp sits outside and collectively smokes like expectant fathers. Since anyone could be the father, all are the father of the child. Harte foregrounds this comic nature of town unity by pointing out that although the individuals may be fragmentary, lacking fingers, toes, ears, etc, they constitute an "aggregate force." And lest one judge the individual by his appearance, the gambler has a Raphael face and the intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet, while the strongest man has only three fingers on his right hand and the best shot only has one eye. When the baby cries out, they all rise to their feet "as one man."
The surface theme of the story is, of course, the regeneration of Roaring Camp; however, it is not the child who achieves this, but rather the men playing the roles of women. This most sentimental of all Harte stories is not without its humor, and like "Tennessee's Partner" makes an obvious reference to the kind of humor on which it depends. Although the men plan a broad burlesque of the christening of the child, complete with a mock godfather, Stumpy stops it, claiming his own right for that position. "To the credit of all humorists be it said that the first man to acknowledge its justice was the satirist thus stopped of his fun." Thus the christening proceeds seriously, which, the narrator says, make sit all the more ludicrous than the satirist had planned. Also comic is the notion of "pastoral happiness" set up by the British sailor singing all ninety stanzas of a sea chantey as a lullaby. "Such was the golden summer of Roaring Camp."
However, the idyll can only work if perpetuated in a world of men around the baby, bringing it up much as wolves bring up a lost child. When there is talk by some of civilizing the town by bringing in women and families, the threat to the idyll is obvious. And Harte makes it clear that the story cannot end that way but that something must prevent the loss of the idyll. The child, the center of the transformation of the men, must be preserved in the only way mythic creatures can, by being made into a holy icon. Thus, "The minority meekly yielded in the hope that something might turn up to prevent it. And it did." The story ends with the mighty storm, like the destruction of the earth by flood in which the camp that formerly roared with male bawdiness, now roars with the flood that washes all in front of it.
What makes Harte so influential is the fact that his stories nicely illustrate the short story's focus on thematic meaning, on the voice of the narrator, and on the reversal of surface reality. Things are not as they appear, says the short story. Sentiment is always tempered by humor in the stories. Humor is the controlling factor that holds in the sentiment.