18 SEPTEMBER 1880, Page 20


THE key to the quality of Mr. Bret Harte's genius is, perhaps, to be found in the collection—not yet published in this edition —of his Condensed Novels. Nothing exactly like them in the way of parody has appeared before. Thackeray's Prize Novelists are witty and trenchant enough, but they are mere parodies. You laugh, and you are reminded of the originals, but you have not got the essential aroma of the originals' tone and method. But the Condensed Novels are, in fact, a masterly abstract of that part of criticism which consists in analysis ; the deduction or judgment is left out. Analysis of this kind, however, is not so much the result of intellectual insight as of emotional in- tuition,—in other words, of impressibility. Mr. Harte's mind appears to be like a photographic negative ; it is susceptible immediately and unerringly of the gradations and forms of the literary temperament and devices of others. With a facility that seems to approach unconsciousness, he feels and records whatever may be termed " peculiar " in that 'with which he is brought into contact. Such almost morbid alertness to impres- sions, though it doubtless has its drawbacks, must be of immense advantage to a writer of stories. By virtue simply of his organic constitution, he is able to produce that which others arrive at only • The Complete Works of Bret Harte. Vol. IL—" American Legends, &c." London Chatto and Windna 1880.

by much thought and labour, if at all. Of course, susceptibility alone will not suffice to furnish forth a writer; he must also possess—and Mr. Harte possesses it—a corresponding faculty of expression. The better half of his work will then be ready done to his mind by nature ; and what, to a less gifted man, -would be irksome literary labour, is to him nothing more than the discharge of a normal function. It is, perhaps, needless to say that we are far from intending to cast a slur upon the validity of Mr. Harte's intellect. We only desire to draw at- tention to the quality which, in our opinion, is the source of some of his best effects, and which also is the cause of his occa- sional mistakes. For nothing is more probable than that un- assisted intellect, however intrinsically perspicuous, is impotent to produce memorable literature. The finer touches, as well as the sustaining and fusing power, are furnished by the other side of the mind. At the same time, energy and fusion will often beguile into deplorable errors him who trusts to them too im- plicitly, and omits to guide himself by the dry light of reason.

Now to apply the key which we have indicated to the volume before us. Mr. Bret Harte has often been charged with being an imitator of Dickens. There is no doubt that the manner and pose, so to speak, of much of his work remind one of Dickens; and it may further be admitted that no other author has produced so strong a literary impression on Mr. Harte as Dickens. But it must not be forgotten, on the other band, that several other authors besides Dickens are occasionally reflected in Mr. Harte's work. In the "American and Spanish Legends," for example, the style and treatment are constantly suggestive of Washington Irving. Some of the passages in other sketches read like an echo of Hawthorne. But in every instance one unvarying condition is noticeable ; the author reflected never exercises his influence promiscuously or in hap-hazard fashion, but strictly according to the subject. That is to say, if Mr. Harte has it on his mind to write such a tale as "The Adventure of Padre Vicentio," he will inevitably begin to think of Irving ; and when he takes up his pen, an Irving-like flavour will more or less unconsciously emanate from it. If, again, he proposes to describe "The Surprising Adventures of Mr. Charles Summerton," recollections of Dickens's occasional papers will come over him, and the result will be Dickens-y. In short, lie can never invade a domain which any noteworthy writer has made his own without in some degree assuming the peculiar gait and dialect of that writer ; and this, as we have intimated, is not at all the result of a wilful determination to imitate, but of natural susceptibility. And if Mr. Harte's style has been associated with that of Dickens more than with any other author's, the reason is simply that the Dickens order of subjects has had, upon the whole, and in some of his better-known pieces, more attraction for him than any other. For all that, the differences between him and Dickens are neither few nor slight, as a moment's reflection will show.

In the first place, Dickens had a strong literary individuality, while Mr. Harte's individuality is so very unobtrusive, that only on remarkable occasions does it emerge at all. This, indeed, is the price he has to pay for his sensitiveness to impressions. It would not be difficult to construct a tolerably life-like portrait of Dickens from hints and indications contained in his novels ; it would be difficult to avoid doing so in the case of a robust -self-assertion like Thackeray's ; but it would need an analytical Argus to do as much with the materials which Mr. Harte has placed at our disposal. The only trait which can be said to stand prominently out is a rather morbid sense of the ludicrous, which is not supported, as in Dickens's case, by an imperturb- -able and unlimited self-confidence. The consequences are two- fold,—one good, the other bad. The good consequence is a quality of humour often finer and subtler than the somewhat boisterous fun of Dickens, or the man-of-the-worldly irony of Thackeray. The bad consequence is, that it renders Mr. Harte -altogether too self-conscious (a condition frequently associated with the self-suppression to which we have alluded), insomuch that he is continually prompted to make ironical apologies—" I fear," "I regret to state," 87.c.—for the actions or speeches of his -characters. So obviously ironic and so often repeated are these apologies, that one is finally provoked to demand the reason of them. It appears to us to be as follows ;—Mr. Harte, of course, has in reality a strong sentimental admiration for the personages and utterances which he affects to consider shabby and improper ; buthe is aware that the betrayal of strong sentiment on a writer's part is liable to be ridiculed by unsympathetic critics under the name of "gush ;" and with the dread of being considered a gusher before his eyes, he seeks to protect himself behind this fictitious little sneer. It is not a wholly laudable device, since it amounts to screening himself at the expense of things which he honestly admires. Moreover, it is much to be deprecated from an artistic point of view, for the reader is continually re- minded, at inopportune junctures, that the story is not some- thing which is spontaneously revealing itself before his mental sight, but that it has been written down by sonic intermediate person, who has had the presumption not only to form an opinion about what was going on, but to obtrude it upon the reader's unwilling notice. A great writer—or, more accurately, a writer in his great moments—is not afraid to let the sentiment of his theme declare itself unrestrained, bow high-strung or tender soever it may be. And in general, it is not possible for any one to be great who will not venture to run the gauntlet of the ridicule of fools.

Another point in which Dickens (whom we are using rather as a stalking-horse to get at our present author, than with any idea of drawing a serious parallel between the two writers) differs essentially from Mr. Harte, consists in his power of sustained production. Dickens's usual range was three volumes and upwards ; but Mr. Harte has achieved his most brilliant successes within the limits of a dozen or twenty pages. Here also the cause is probably to be found in Mr. Harte's lack of individuality; and tendency to reflect that of other people ; an idea will impress him with extra- ordinary vividness, but its hold upon him is proportionately brief ; his strength is impulsive, not enduring. A man like Dickens, when his inspiration gives out or goes into temporary retirement, can keep up the play indefinitely by having recourse to his characteristic stock-in-trade of dramatic or narrative properties ; but with Mr. Harte, when the first flush is over, all is over ; he has nothing of his own left to fall back upon when the cold fit conies on. This is why his novel,

Gabriel Conroy, failed to carry on the fame of his shorter tales ; it was little more than a series of short detached

flights, unequal in themselves and incongruous in respect to one another. There is nothing to be surprised at in that. Nobody short of a Shakespeare can expect to be uniformly inspired;, and if, like Mr. Halle, lie can do nothing of even average value except when inspired, it is evident that he must resign himself to more or less impres- sive brevity. Most distinguished writers whose works are at all voluminous have what may be called an average level of produc- tive energy, on which level, be it high or low, by far the greater portion of their work is done. Nothing of the sort can be pre- dicted of Mr. Harte. When he is at his best, no modern story- writer can claim precedence of him ; when he is not at his best, he is nothing recognisable at all. If he is not " Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere," be is very apt to be " nowhere " him- self. We have heard it said that Mr. Brete Harte has found imitators. In our view, the thing is literally not possible. The venue of his stories may be copied, and his favourite types of character brought on the stage, but the imitation can pro- ceed no further, for the very obvious reason that there is nothing else in Mr. Harte to imitate,—except that which is

Not that our author's style is at any time flat or dull. He is essentially humorous, even when his humour adopts forms with which other writers have made us familiar. He is quick in realising even subordinate situations so com- pletely as to be able to take advantage of their utmost cepa- cities,—as when, for instance, Jack Hamlin has been dealing cards to himself and "dummy," in order to decide whether or not he shall elope with Mrs. Brown, of Calaveras. The first deal favours him ; " dummy " wins the second. Then remarks Mr. Harte, "Jack brightened up for the next deal." The touch is most subtle, and shows how com- pletely the writer has thrown himself into the character. Again, Mr. Bade possesses, almost in perfection, the science, as we may call it, of suggestiveness ; he trusts daringly to his readers' intelligence, thereby not only sparing himself and them weary pages of explanation, but augmenting tenfold the verisimilitude of that which is not explained. There are few things in literature more difficult for an author than to determine how much the reader needs to be told. Not merely must the guiding or commanding features of the story only be brought forward, but the writer must separate his attitude towards the story, which is that of full knowledge, from that of

the reader, which is that of growing knGwksig,e and of inference. When Mr. Harte makes a mistake at all in this respect, it is always on the side of explaining too little ; whence it happens that, in some of his later stories especially, there is occasionally a certain obscurity or ambiguity of meaning. No doubt the same thing often occurs in real life, but real life is a story in which we are ourselves involved, and the end of which is not yet ; whereas a work of art must be morally and constructively symmetrical, not only with an end, but with a foreshadowing of the end in all the other parts. Of course, Mr. Harte's method in this respect is not the only good method, as it certainly is not the method which has the widest vogue at the present day. It is dramatic, rather than novelistic ; the analysis has been done, but it is allowed to appear only in its re- sults. The motive is contained in the action, the cause in the effect. It may often be desirable, on philosophic or speculative grounds, to dissect these motives and causes in the presence of the reader, as George Eliot and Hawthorne dissect them ; but for stories of the dimensions and character of Mr. Harte's, his method is the only practicable as well as the most effective one. Before concluding this portion of our re- marks, reference ought to be made to the—under the circum- stances—rather remarkable copiousness of Mr. Harte's voca- bulary, and to the mature completeness of his literary outfit in general. It looks as if, whether by instinct or design, he had never lost an opportunity of assimilating whatever might con- duce to his professional prosperity ; so that in point of verbal and phraseological furniture, the gulf between him and Mr. Joaquin Miller—the only American writer whose lines have been cast in the same places as Mr. Harte's—is wider than the Continent. But verbal facility, though a very useful and, in some predicaments, an almost indispensable accomplishment, is like other good things, liable to abuse. Mr. Harte's language is too frequently open to the charge of being ornate ; and he is much given to the practice, which Dickens determined should be humorous, of describing absurd matters in grandiloquent phrases. The incongruity may raise a smile, perhaps, but such smiles are cheaply got, and should not lie within the ambition of a really witty man, as Mr. Harte unquestionably is. Mr. Miller is occasionally more forcible than Mr. Harte, for the very reason that his press of ideas gives such teeming pregnancy to the slender vocabulary which is all he has at command.

In the present volume are included a number of pieces, some anterior, some subsequent to that brilliant cluster of tales, six in number, which begins with the "Luck of Roaring Camp " and ends with "Brown of Calaveras." The earlier pieces are, with one exception, of very little intrinsic value, though to the critic they are interesting, as showing how the writer groped about at the outset of his career, trying his luck now in this vein and now in that, and seldom rising into an atmosphere which he would be said to breathe wholly alone. The later pieces are elaborate and clever, but they are those most depressing of imitations,— the imitations by a writer of himself. We wrote a sentence just now about the inimitability of Mr. Bret Harte, but we must modify it'so far as to admit that he himself can conjure up the halting wraith of his own triumphs. When a writer has sud- denly achieved a great success, he is as apt to be as much sur- prised at it as anybody else, and is somewhat at a loss to know how it came about. For the highest achievements in literature come by inspiration, that is, they are the conceptions which come to the author from some source outside himself,—which he discovers, so to speak, but does not evolve. Nevertheless, when the inspiration is passed, and the author is left face to face with the results of it, it seems to him that the work must, after all, be his own, and that he can, therefore, produce at pleasure the fellow to it. This, however, he is as incapable of doing as another man would be, unless the conditions are repeated. Accordingly, Mr. Bret Harte fancied that he could write, if he chose, another "Out- casts of Poker Flat," and it is possible that at the time he may have believed that "The Romance of Madrofio Hollow," or "The Princess Bob and her Friends," was worthy to be named in the same day with it. But the magic light is not to be found in the latter stories, nor has it reappeared in its full strength in any of those which have been written since. Mr. Harte has reason to be satisfied with himself, however. No living writer has struck so powerful and original a note as he has sounded throughout the six tales which made his reputation. In these he forgets all other literature, and sees and is possessed solely by the life which he portrays. So vigorous and veracious is the conception, that all extraneous and reflected matter is left behind, as the impurities of a solution are rejected when it crystallises. In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat "—which, to our thinking, represents Mr. Harte at his best—there is nothing of Dickens or of any other author ; there is nothing fantastic or whimsical; it is poignant reality clothing itself in words, though the words are so well chosen as to be practically invisible. "Tennessee's Partner," perhaps, approaches nearest to this high- water mark, falling short of it rather in respect of its subject than in the treatment of it. "The Luck of Roaring Camp," though probably the best known of all, does not appeal so directly and irresistibly to our credence and cordiality as do the former two ; but had it not been for them, we should have said it was one of the finest stories of the kind ever written. " Miggles " we do not much believe in ; it is a little forced and unnatural, and the edges of the story are, as it were, frayed and unsatisfying. "Brown of Calaveras," however, again rises nearly to the highest level; and there are masterly passages in the somewhat formless "Idyl of Red Gulch." We have not left ourselves space to speak of " Mliss," which appears among the earlier pieces, and is in many respects unlike any of the others. It is quietly and simply written, but the strange character of the child is brought out with admirable vigour. Mr. Harte has certainly made the literature of the " Argonauts " his own ; the characters of that half-savage body of men probably attracted him by dint of their entire opposite- ness to his own ; they assisted him to maintain the objective vein in which alone he is proficient ; and the expedient of at- tributing the noblest virtues to men and women from whom convention has taught us to expect quite different manifesta- tions, is, however open to question as regards its truth to human nature, undeniably telling from the dramatic stand- point. The subject seems now to have been exhausted, and Mr. Harte has not betrayed any symptoms of having discovered material equally available in any other direction. But he has already deserved well of the Republic on the other side of the Atlantic, not to speak of that greater republic of letters which is confined to no land or race of civilised men.