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Bret Harte, born 1836,  tried several occupations before he became a writer and a journalist, and his writing life was full of ups and downs.  He became the founding editor of the Overland Monthly in 1868, some years after being run out of Eureka California for printing a factual report of a massacre of Indians.

In the early 1870s, Harte was at the top of his career.  It's said he was the highest paid, most-read author of the day. Mark Twain is quoted as saying " . . though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte."

But his popularity became his undoing and he found himself unable to produce and compete with other writers of the day.  In 1877 he became a commercial agent in Prussia, and later American Consul in Glasgow, Scotland.   He died 25 years later in London.

While best known for his stories such as The Luck of Roaring Camp and The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Harte also wrote numerous poems, including the wildly popular satire "The Heathen Chinee," which he called "the worst poem I ever wrote."

We've selected some we think are better, too.

Poems

The Spelling Bee at Angels
Waltz in, waltz in, ye little kids . . .

The Old Campfire
Now shift the blanket pad before your saddle . . .

Cicely (Alkali Station)
Cicely says you're a poet; maybe . . .

Jim
Say there! P'r'aps some on you chaps . . .

Coyote
Blown out of the prairie in twilight and dew . . .

A Question of Privilege
It was Andrew Jackson Sutter who, despising . . .

 

Bret Harte's Christmas story, "Dick Spindler's Family Christmas," was published in 1894 as a part of Mr. Jack Hamlin's Mediation.  The entire story is posted here, with our 2001 holiday collection of poems and stories. 

 


 

 

The Spelling Bee at Angels
(Reported by Truthful James)

Waltz in, waltz in, ye little kids, and gather round my
    knee,
And drop them books and first pot-hooks, and hear a yarn
    from me.
I kin not sling a fair tale of Jinnys fierce and wild,
For I hold it is unchristian to deceive a simple child;
But as from school yer driftin' by, I thowt ye'd like to
    hear
Of a "Spelling Bee" at Angels that we organized last year.

It warn't made up of gentle kids, or pretty kids, like you,
But gents ez hed their reg'lar growth, and some enough for
    two.
There woz Lanky Jim of Sutter's Fork and Bilson of La-
    grange,
And "Pistol Bob," who wore that day a knife by way of
    change.
You start, you little kids, you think these are not pretty
    names,
But each had a man behind it, and —  my name is Truthful
    James.

There was Poker Dick from Whisky Flat, and Smith of
    Shooter's Bend,
And Brown of Calaveras  —  which I want no better friend;
Three-fingered Jack  —  yes, pretty dears, three fingers  —
   you have five,
Clapp cut off two  —  it's sing'lar, too, that Clapp ain't now
    alive.
'T was very wrong indeed, my dears, and Clapp was much
    to blame;
Likewise was Jack, in after-years, for shootin' of the same.

The nights was kinder lengthenin' out, the rains had jest
    begun,
When all the camp came up to Pete's to have their usual
    fun;
But we all sot kinder sad-like around the bar-room stove
Till Smith got up, permiskiss-like, and this remark he hove:
"That's a new game down in Frisco, that ez far ez I can
    see
Beats euchre, poker, and van-toon, they calls the 'Spellin'
    Bee.'"

Then Brown of Calaveras simply hitched his chair and
    spake,
"Poker is good enough for me," and Lanky Jim sez,
    "Shake!"
And Bob allowed he warn't proud, but he "must say right
    thar
That the man who tackled euchre had his education squar."
This brought up Lenny Fairchild, the schoolmaster, who
    said
He knew the game, and he would give instructions on that
    head.

"For instance, take some simple word," sez he, "like
    'separate:'
Now who can spll it?"  Dog my skin, ef thar was one in
    eight.
This set the boys all wild at once. The chairs was put in
    row,
And at the head was Lanky Jim, and at the foot was Joe,
And high upon the bar itself the schoolmaster was raised,
And the bar-keep put his glasses down, and sat and silent
    gazed.

The first word out was "parallel," and seven let it be,
Till Joe waltzed in his "double l" betwixt the "a" and
    "e;"
For since he drilled them Mexicans in San Jacinto's fight
There warn't no prouder man got up than Pistol Joe that
    night —
Till "rhythm" came!  He tried to smile, then said "they
    had him there."
And Lanky Jim, with one long stride, got up and took his
    chair.

O little kids, my pretty kids, 't was touchin' to survey
These bearded men, with weppings on, like schoolboys at
    their play.
They'd laugh with glee, and shout to see each other lead
    the van,
And Bob sat up as monitor with cue for a rattan,
Till the Chair gave out "incinerate," and Brown said he'd
    be durned
If any such blamed word as that in school was ever learned.

When "phthisis" came they all sprang up, and vowed the
    man who rung
Another blamed Greek work on them be taken out and hung.
As they sat down again I saw in Bilson's eye a flash,
And Brown of Calaveras was a-twistin' his moustache,
And when at last Brown slipped on "gneiss," and Bilson
    took his chair,
He dropped some casual words about some folks who dyed
    their hair.

And then the Chair grew very white, and the Chair said
    he'd adjuourn,
But Poker Dick remarked that he would wait and get his
    turn;
Then with a tremblin' voice and hand, and with a wanderin'
    eye,
The Chair next offered "eider-duck," and Dick began with
    "I,"
And Bilson smiled — then Bilson shrieked!  Just how the
    flight begun
I never knowed, for Bilson dropped, and Dick, he moved
    up one.

Then certain gents arose and said "they'd business down
    in camp,"
And "ez the road was rather dark, and ez the night was
    damp,
They'd "— here got up Three-fingered Jack and locked
    the door and yelled:
"No, not one mother's son goes out till that thar word is
    spelled!"
But while the words were on his lips, he groaned and sank
    in pain,
And sank with Webster on his chest and Worcester on his
    brain.

Below the bar dodged Poker Dick, and tried to look ez he
Was huntin' up authorities that no one else could see;
And Brown got down behind the stove, allowin' he "was
    cold,"
Till it upsot and down his legs the cinders freely rolled,
And several gents called "Order!" till in his simple way,
Poor Smith began with "O-r" — "Or" — and he was
    dragged away.

O little kids, my pretty kids, down on your knees and
    pray!
You've got your eddication in a peaceful sort of way;
And bear in mind thar may be sharps ez slings their spellin'
    square,
But likewise slings their bowie-knives without a thought or
    care.
You wants to know the rest, my dears?  That's all!  In
    me you see
The only gent that lived to tell about the Spellin' Bee!

                ________________________________

He ceased and passed, that truthful man; the children went
    their way
With downcast heads and downcast hearts — but not to
    sport or play.
For when at eve the lamps was lit, and supperless to bed
Each child was sent, with tasks undone and lessons all un-
    said,
No man might know the awful woe that thrilled their
    youthful frames,
As they dreamed of Angels Spelling Bee and thought of
    Truthful James.

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SEPARATOR.gif (1476 bytes)

 

The Old Camp-Fire

Now shift the blanket pad before your saddle back you
    fling,
And draw your cinch up tighter till the sweat drops from
    the ring:
We've a dozen miles to cover ere we reach the next divide.
Our limbs are stiffer now than when we first set out to ride,
And worse, the horses know it, and feel the leg-grip tire,
Since in the days when, long ago, we sought the old camp-fire.

Yes, twenty years!  Lord!  how we'd scent its incense
    down the trail,
Through balm of bay and spice and spruce, when eye and ear
    would fail,
And word and faint from useless quest we crept, like this,
    to rest,
Or, flushed with luck and youthful hope, we rode, like this,
    abreast.
Ay, straighen up, old friend, and let the mustang think
    he's nigher,
Through looser rein and stirrup strain, the welcome old
    camp-fire.

You know the shout that would ring our before us down
    the glade,
And start the blue jays like a flight of arrows through the
    shade,
And sift the thin pine needles down like slanting, shining
    rain,
And send the squirrels scampering back to their holes again,
Until we saw, blue-veiled and dim, or leaping like desire,
That flame of twenty years ago, which lit the old camp-
    fire.

And that that rest on Nature's breast, when talk had
    dropped, and slow
The night wind went from tree to tree with challenge soft
    and low!
We lay on lazy elbows propped, or stood to stir the flame,
Till up the soaring redwood's shaft our shadows danced and
    came,
As if to draw us with the sparks, high o'er its unseen spire,
To the five stars that kept their ward above the old camp-
    fire, —

Those picket stars whose tranquil watch half soothed, half
    shamed our sleep.
What recked we then what beasts or men around might
    lurk or creep?
We lay and heard with listless ears the far-off panther's cry,
The near coyote's snarling snap, the grizzly's deep-drawn sigh,
The brown bear's blundering human tread, the gray wolves'
    yelping choir
Beyond the magic circle drawn around the old camp-fire.

And then that morn!  Was ever morn so filled with all
    things new?
The light that fell through long brown aisles from out the
    killing blue,
The creak and yawn of stretching boughs, the jay-bird's
    early call,
The rat-tat-tat of woodpecker that waked the woodland hall,
The fainter stir of lower life in fern and brake and brier,
Till flashing leaped the torch of Day from last night's old
    camp-fire!

Well, well! we'll see it once again; we should be near it
    now;
It's scarce a mile to where the trail strikes off to skirt
    the slough,
And then dip to the Indian Spring, the wooded rise, and —
    strange!
Yet here should stand the blasted pine that marked our
    farther range;
And here — what's this?  A ragged swale of ruts and
    stumps and mire!
Sure this is not the sacred grove that hid the old camp-fire?

Yet here's the "blaze" I cut myself, and there's the
    stumbling ledge,
With quartz "outcrop" that lay atop, now leveled to its
    edge,
And mounds of moss-grown stumps beside the woodman's
    rotting chips,
And gashes in the hillside, that gape with dumb red lips.
And yet above the shattered wreck and ruin, curling higher —
Ah yes! — still lifts the smoke that marked the welcome
    old camp-fire!

Perhaps some friend of twenty years still lingers there to
    raise
To weary hearts and tired eyes that beacon of old days,
Perhaps — but stay; 't is gone! and yet once more it lifts
    as though
To meet our tardy blundering steps, and seems to move, and
    lo!
Whirls by us in a rush of sound, — the vanished funeral
    pyre
Of hopes and fears that twenty years burned in the old
    camp-fire!

For see, beyond the prospect spreads, with chimney, spire,
    and roof, —
Two iron bands across the trail clank to our mustang's hoof;
Above them leap two blackened threads from limb-lopped
    tree to tree,
To where the whitewashed station speeds it message to the
    sea.
Rein in! Rein in! the quest is o'er.  The goal of our
    desire
Is but the train whose track has lain across the old camp-
fire.

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"Cicely"
(Alkali Station)

Cicely says you're a poet; maybe, — I ain't much on
    rhyme:
I'd reckon you'd give a hundred, and beat me every
    time.
Poetry! — that's the way some chaps put up an idee,
But I takes mine "straight without sugar," and that's
    what's the matter with me.

Poetry! — just look round you, — alkali, rock, and sage;
Sage-brush, rock, and alkali; ain't it a pretty page!
Sun in the east at mornin', sun in the west at night,
And the shadow of this 'yer station the only thing moves
    in sight.

Poetry! — Well now — Polly!  Polly, run to your mam;
Run right away, my pooty!  By-by!  Ain't she a lamb?
Poetry! — that reminds me o; suthin' right in that suit:
Jest shet that door thar, will yer? — for Cicely's ears is
    cute.

Ye noticed Polly, — the baby?  A month afore she was
    born,
Cicely — my old woman — was moodly-like and forlorn;
Out of her head and crazy, and talked of flowers and
    trees;
Family man yourself, sir?  Well you know what a woman
    be's.

Nervous she was, and restless — said that she "could n't
    stay."
Stay! — and the nearest woman seventeen miles away.
But I fixed it up with the doctor, and he said he would be
    on hand,
And I kinder stuck by the shanty, and fenced in that bit o'
    land.

One night, — the tenth of October, — I woke with a chill
    and a fright,
For the door it was standing open, and Cicely warn't in
    sight.
But a note was pinned on the blanket, which it said that
    she "could n't stay,"
But had gone to visit her neighbor, — seventeen miles
    away!

When and how she stampeded, I did n't wait for to see,
For out in the road, next minit, I started as wild as she;
Running first this way and that way, like a hound that is
    off the scent,
For there warn't no track in the darkness to tell me the
    way she went.

I've had some mighty mean moments afore I ken to this
    spot, —
Lost on the Plains in '50, drowned almost and shot;
But out on this alkali desert, a-hunting a crazy wife,
Was ra'ly as on-satis-factory as anything in my life.

"Cicely ! Cicely! Cicely!" I called, and I held my breath,
And "Cicely!" came from the canyon, — and all was as
    still as death.
And "Cicely! Cicely! Cicely!" came from the rocks below,
And just but a whisper of "Cicely!" down from them
    peaks of snow.

I ain't what you call religious — but I just looked up to
    the sky,
And — this 'yer's to what I'm coming, and maybe ye think
    I lie:
But up away to east'ard, yaller and big and far,
I saw of a suddent rising the singlerist kind of star.

Big and yaller and dancing, it seemed to beckon to me:
Yaller and big and dancing, such as you never see:
Big and yaller and dancing, — I never saw such a star,
And I thought of them sharps in the Bible, and I went
    for it then and thar.

Over the brush and bowlders I stumbled and pushed ahead,
Keeping the star afore me, I went wherever it led.
It might hev been for an hour, when suddent and peart and
    nigh,
Our of the yearth afore me thar riz up a baby's cry.

Listen! thar's the same music; but her lungs they are
    stronger now
Thank the day I packed her and her mother, — I'm derned
    if I jest know how.
But the doctor kem the next minit, and the joke o' the
    whole thing is
That Cis never knew what happened from that very night
    to this.

But Cicely says you're a poet, and maybe you might, some
    day,
Jest sling her a rhyme 'bout a baby that was born in a
    curious way,
And see what she says; and, old fellow, when you speak of
    the star, don't tell
As how 't was the doctor's lantern, — for maybe 't won't
    sound so well.

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"Jim"

Say there! P’r’aps
Some o’ you chaps
    Might know Jim Wild?
Well, no offense:
Thar aint no sense
    In gittin’ riled!

Jim was my chum
    Up on the Bar:
That’s why I come
    Down from up yar,
Lookin’ for Jim.
Thank ye, sir! You
Ain’t o’ that crew,
   Blest if you are!

Money? Not much:
    That ain’t my kind;
I ain’t no such.
    Rum? I don’t mind,
Seein’ it’s you.

Well, this yer Jim
Did you know him?
Jes’ ‘bout your size;
Same kind of eyes;
Well, that is strange:
    Why, it’s two year
    Since he came here,
Sick, for a change.

Well, here’s to us:
    Eh?
The h you say!
    Dead?
That little cuss?

What makes you star’,
You over thar?
Can’t a man drop
‘s glass in yer shop
But you must r’ar?
    It would n’t take
    Dd much to break
You and yer bar.

        Dead!
PoorlittleJim!
Why, thar was me,
Jones, and Bob Lee,
Harry and Ben,
No account men:
Then to take him!

Well, thar Good-by
No more, sirI
         Eh?
What’s that you say?
Why, dern it! sho!
No? Yes! By Joe!
            Sold!

Sold! Why, you limb,
You ornery,
    Derned old
Long-legged Jim.

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Coyote 

Blown out of the prairie in twilight and dew,
Half bold and half timid, yet lazy all through;
Loathe ever to leave, and yet fearful to stay,
He limps in the clearing, an outcast in gray.

A shade on the stubble, a ghost by the wall,
Now leaping, now limping, now risking a fall,
Lop-eared and large jointed, but ever alway
A thoroughly vagabond outcast in gray.

Here, Carlo, old fellow,— he’s one of your kind,—
Go, seek him, and bring him in out of the wind.
What! Snarling, my Carlo! So even dogs may
Deny their own kin in the outcast in gray.

Well, take what you will,— though it be on the sly,
Marauding or begging,— I shall not ask why,
But will call it a dole, just to help on his way
A four-footed friar in orders of gray!

 

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A Question of Privilege
(Reported by Truthful James)

It was Andrew Jackson Sutter who, despising Mr. Cutter
    for remarks he heard him utter in debate upon the
    floor,
Swung him up into the skylight, in the peaceful, pensive
    twilight, and then keerlessly proceeded, makin’ no
    account what we did —
To wipe up with his person casual dust upon the floor.

Now a square fight never frets me, nor unpleasantness up-
    sets me, but the simple thing that gets me---now
    the job is done and gone,

And we’ve come home free and merry from the peaceful
    cemetery, leavin’ Cutter there with Sutter --- that
    mebbee just a stutter
On the part of Mr. Cutter caused the loss we deeply mourn.

Some bashful hesitation, just like spellin’ punctooation —
   might have worked an aggravation on to Sutter’s
    mournful mind,
For the witnesses all vary ez to wot was said and nary
    a galoot will toot his horn except the way he is
    inclined.

But they all allow that Sutter had begun a kind of mutter,
    when uprose Mr. Cutter with a sickening kind of
    ease,
And proceeded then to wade in to the subject then pre-
    vadin’: "Is Profanity degradin’?" in words like
    unto these:

"Onlike the previous speaker, Mr. Sutter of Yreka, he was
    but a humble seeker — and not like him — a
    cuss"—
It was here that Mr. Sutter softly reached for Mr. Cutter,
    when the latter with a stutter said: "ac-customed
    to discuss."

Then Sutter he rose grimly, and sorter smilin’ dimly bowed
    onto the Chairman primly — (just like Cutter ez
    could be!)
Drawled "he guessed he must fall — back —as — Mr.
    Cutter owned the pack — as — he just had played
     the — Jack — as —" (here Cutter’s gun went crack!
     as Mr. Sutter gasped and ended)  "every man can
    see!"

But William Henry Pryor — just in range of Sutter’s fire
    —here evinced a wild desire to do somebody harm,
And in the general scrimmage no one thought if Sutter’s
    "image" was a misplaced punctooation — like the
    hole in Pryor’s arm.

For we all waltzed in together, never carin’ to ask whether
    it was Sutter or was Cutter we woz tryin’ to abate.
But we couldn’t help perceivin’, when we took to inkstand
    heavin’, that the process was relievin’ to the sharp-
    ness of debate.

So we’ve come home free and merry from the peaceful
    cemetery, and I make no comentary on these simple
    childish games;
Things is various and human  —  and the man ain’t born of
    woman who is free to intermeddle with his pal’s
    intents and aims.

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A Few Links and Books

Click to order from Amazon Bret Harte's Gold Rush : Outcasts of Poker Flat, the Luck of Roaring Camp, Tennessee's Partner, & Other Favorites



Click to order from Amazon  Selected Letters of Bret Harte (Literature of the American West, Vol 1) Gary Scharnhorst, Editor


Surprisingly few Harte books are in print.  Any good library or used bookstore should have many.  Our favorite poetry collection is The Complete Poetical Works of Bret Harte.

image. We'll probably see you over there, as we seem to be addicted to books at the Bar-D.  Come on back now.

 

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