“Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile” George R. Stewart’s first major book

The Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of the best in the early twentieth century.  Yet there was always a tension between those who thought it should teach composition — mainly administrators — and those who thought it should teach literature and its attendant encouragement of critical thinking.  Sadly, when Walter Hart ran the Department of English, he failed to prepare an espirit d’corps among the potential literary leaders of the Department.  He was replaced by someone who, if Stewart’s description is to be believed — he called him a tyrant — was the quintessential bureaucrat, Guy Montgomery.   Montgomery apparently ruled with little regard for his faculty – or at least for Stewart – during much of the Depression,  a period Stewart called “the eleven bad years.”

By the early 1930’s, George R. Stewart, long overdue for promotion,  decided he had little hope of advancement under Montgomery.  Since his family was growing, he chose not to write one of those academic books that English professors normally write for each other, but to write a book of more general (and marketable) interest.  So he began to research and write books about California and western history.

As an English professor, he felt some obligation to focus on literature, formal or informal.  So following a model he developed for his Master’s Thesis work , in which he researched novelist Robert Louis Stevenson’s explorations in the old west, he decided to write a biography of Bret Harte.

Harte was very popular in the time immediately after the Gold Rush.  Although born in Albany, New York, of mixed Jewish/Dutch/English ancestry, he wandered west, found work, and began to write. His stories and poems seemed to capture the flavor of the mining camps of the time.  His literary technique was brilliant, keeping readers turning the pages and helping them to hold the stories in their minds after they finished reading.

Harte had his problems out west.   He did not seem happy with the real rough-and-tumble of the place, a rough-and-tumble which was often based on murderous racism and theft.  Working on a newspaper in what is now Arcata, California, he wrote a powerful editorial condemning the brutal slaughter of an entire village of native folks by local racists.  As a result, he was driven from town, and wound up working in San Francisco for the US Mint.  It was a blessing in disguise — while there, he had time to write, and eventually  became editor of the early San Francisco literary magazine, The Overland Monthly.  But Mark Twain, who knew Harte in San Francisco, believed Harte’s work did not reflect the real west and publicly criticized Harte’s work.

Harte married — not happily — then eventually moved east again to write a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly.  After that, his fame (and his income from writing) faded, and he went back to work for the US Government as a Consul in Germany and Scotland. Eventually, he began “keeping company” with an English lady friend, who supported him financially in his last, poverty-stricken days.

Stewart’s biography was written at a time when Harte’s star had faded.  He originally planned a massive work about the west, but soon realized that he needed to pare that down to a microcosm of the time.  Since he’d written an article about Harte, and Harte’s work seemed to encapsulate the Gold Rush brilliantly, he chose Harte as his subject.

His goal was to bring a rebirth of interest in Harte’s work. He wanted to show Hart as neither heroic nor anti-hero and the book is honest in its depiction of Harte’s accomplishments and his weaknesses.  But it is also the adventurous story of a young man exploring the west in a time which would become mythical — thanks in part to his writing. Stewart emphasizes the beauty of Harte’s work, and its powerful evocation of the 1850’s California as a special place and time in human history.   Thanks in part to Stewart’s biography,  Harte is now considered an important author in Gold Rush Era California, and his works are read to capture some of the flavor of the time.

Since this was Stewart’s first major work aimed at the trade press — that is, the publishers who produce books for a general audience — it lacks the flow and majesty of his later works like Fire and Earth Abides.  Yet, it’s a very readable book, even for a non-scholarly reader.  Good reviews helped book sales, and encouraged Stewart to keep writing to his interests, rather than the academic norm.

Years later, in an excellent oral history conducted by Suzanne Riess for the Regional Oral History Office, Stewart reflected on his experiences with the Bret Harte biography, and the lessons it taught him.

“Writing is too financially precarious, for one thing. You get yourself in an awful trap. Of course writing about Bret Harte was a good thing for me, as a matter of fact, [laughing] It showed me what a trap writing can be. He was a prime example of a man who should never have cut loose. He should have taken that job at the University of California when he had the chance. That would have changed his whole life. He probably would have written much better, and had a much better life all the way around.”

Stewart, of course, is writing here of himself.  He did take a job at the University of California, which  — whatever problems he had with Montgomery — gave him a safe harbor from which to write.  Harte turned the UC offer down, and died poor and alone.

As he did in so many of his landmark works, George R. Stewart broke new ground with this biography, ground never been better tilled.  Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile, is still the best biography of Harte that’s available.   The book sold well, so Stewart was encouraged to continue writing about history and the West.

His next book would be a milestone in research, approach, and vision.  Even though it was written in 1936, long before the Environmental Movement or the Space Age, it has been called the first Whole Earth book.  George R. Stewart’s biography of Harte thus opened a important door, into the future where we now live.