Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York. He was named Francis Brett Hart after his great-grandfather, Francis Brett. When he was young, his father, Henry, changed the spelling of the family name from Hart to Harte. Henry's father was Bernard Hart, an Orthodox Jewish immigrant who flourished as a merchant, becoming one of the founders of the New York Stock Exchange. Later, Francis preferred to be known by his middle name, but he spelled it with only one "t", becoming Bret Harte.
An avid reader as a boy, Harte published his first work at age 11, a satirical poem titled "Autumn Musings", now lost. Rather than attracting praise, the poem garnered ridicule from his family. As an adult, he recalled to a friend, "Such a shock was their ridicule to me that I wonder that I ever wrote another line of verse". His formal schooling ended when he was 13, in 1849.
Harte moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist. He spent part of his life in the northern California coastal town of Union (now Arcata), a settlement on Humboldt Bay that was established as a provisioning center for mining camps in the interior.
The Wells Fargo Messenger, July 1916, relates that, after an unsuccessful attempt to make a living in the gold camps, he signed on as a messenger with Wells Fargo & Co. Express. He guarded treasure boxes on stagecoaches for a few months, then gave it up to become the schoolmaster at a school near Sonora. He created his character Yuba Bill from his memory of an old stagecoach driver.
The 1860 massacre of between 80 and 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat was well documented historically and was reported in San Francisco and New York by Harte. When serving as assistant editor for the Northern Californian, Harte editorialized about the slayings while his boss Stephen G. Whipple was temporarily absent, leaving Harte in charge of the paper. Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing: "a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds." After he published the editorial, his life was threatened, and he was forced to flee one month later. Harte quit his job and moved to San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city paper is attributed to him, describing widespread community approval of the massacre. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers.
Harte married Anna Griswold on August 11, 1862 in San Rafael, California. From the start, the marriage was rocky. Some suggested that she was handicapped by extreme jealousy, while early Harte biographer Henry C. Merwin privately concluded that she was "almost impossible to live with".
Among Harte's first literary efforts, a poem was published in The Golden Era in 1857, and, in October of that same year, his first prose piece on "A Trip Up the Coast". He was hired as editor of The Golden Era in the spring of 1860, which he attempted to make into a more literary publication. Mark Twain later recalled that, as an editor, Harte struck "a new and fresh and spirited note" which "rose above that orchestra's mumbling confusion and was recognizable as music". Among his writings were parodies and satires of other writers, including The Stolen Cigar-Case featuring ace detective "Hemlock Jones", which Ellery Queen praised as "probably the best parody of Sherlock Holmes ever written".
Well-known minister Thomas Starr King recommended Harte to James Thomas Fields, editor of the prestigious The Atlantic Monthly. Fields published Harte's first story in the magazine in October 1863. He joined with Charles Henry Webb in starting a new literary journal called The Californian in 1864. He became friends with and mentored poet Ina Coolbrith. In 1868, Harte became editor of The Overland Monthly, another new literary magazine, published by Roman Anton with the intention of highlighting local writings. The Overland Monthly was more in tune with the pioneering spirit of excitement in California. His story "The Luck of Roaring Camp" appeared in the magazine's second issue, propelling Harte to nationwide fame.
In 1865 Harte created a controversy. Harte was asked to edit a book of California poetry by bookseller, Anton Roman. It was to be a showcase of the finest California writers. Harte had edited the book, called Outcroppings, and only contained nineteen poets--many of them Harte's friends including Ina Coolbrith and Charles Warren Stoddard. He also used the preface as a vehicle to attack California's literature and blamed the state's "monotonous climate" for its bad poetry. While the book was widely praised in the East, in the West many newspapers and poets took umbrage.
When word of Charles Dickens's death reached Harte in July 1870, he immediately sent a dispatch across the bay to San Francisco to hold back the forthcoming publication of his Overland Monthly for 24 hours, so that he could compose the poetic tribute "Dickens in Camp".
Harte became instantly famous with the publication of his poem "Plain Language from Truthful James" in the Overland Monthly in the September 1870 issue. It became better known by its alternate title "The Heathen Chinee" after being republished in a Boston newspaper in 1871. It also very rapidly was republished in several other newspapers and journals, including New York Evening Post, Prairie Farmer, New York Tribune, Boston Evening Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, and Saturday Evening Post.
He was determined to pursue his literary career and traveled back East with his family in 1871, to New York and eventually to Boston where he contracted with the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly for an annual salary of $10,000, "an unprecedented sum at the time". His popularity waned, however, and by the end of 1872 he was without a publishing contract and increasingly desperate. He spent the next few years struggling to publish new work or republish old, and delivering lectures about the gold rush. The winter of 1877–1878 was particularly hard for Harte and his family. He later recalled it as a "hand-to-mouth life" and wrote to his wife Anna, "I don't know—looking back—what ever kept me from going down, in every way, during that awful December and January".
After months of soliciting for such a role, Harte accepted the position of United States Consul in the town of Krefeld, Germany in May 1878. Mark Twain had been a friend and supporter of Harte's until a substantial falling out, and he had previously tried to block any appointment for Harte. In a letter to William Dean Howells, he complained that Harte would be an embarrassment to the United States because, as he wrote, "Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward, a Jeremy Diddler, he is brim full of treachery... To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much". Eventually, Harte was given a similar role in Glasgow in 1880. In 1885, he settled in London. Throughout his time in Europe, he regularly wrote to his wife and children and sent monthly financial contributions. He declined, however, to invite them to join him, nor did he return to the United States to visit them. His excuses were usually related to money. During the 24 years that he spent in Europe, he never abandoned writing and maintained a prodigious output of stories that retained the freshness of his earlier work.
He died in Camberley, England in 1902 of throat cancer, and is buried at Frimley. His wife Anna (née Griswold) Harte died on August 2, 1920. The couple lived together only 16 of the 40 years that they were married.
In Round the World, Andrew Carnegie praised Harte as uniquely American:
"A whispering pine of the Sierras transplanted to Fifth Avenue! How could it grow? Although it shows some faint signs of life, how sickly are the leaves! As for fruit, there is none. America had in Bret Harte its most distinctively national poet."
Mark Twain, however, characterized him and his writing as insincere, writing in his autobiography four years after Harte's death. Twain criticized the miners' dialect used by Harte, claiming that it never existed outside of his imagination. Additionally, Twain accused Harte of "borrowing" money from his friends with no intention to repay it and of financially abandoning his wife and children. He referred repeatedly to Harte as "The Immortal Bilk". Ironically, the Mark Twain Bret Harte Historic Trail (Marker Number 431 erected in 1948 by the California Centennial Commission) in Tuolumne County, California and the town of Twain Harte in the same county, are named after both writers.Condensed Novels and Other Papers (1867)
Outcroppings (1865), editor
The Luck of Roaring Camp, and Other Sketches (1870)
The Tales of the Argonauts (1875)
Gabriel Conroy (1876)
Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876)
Drift from Two Shores (1878)
The Crusade of the Excelsior (1887)
The Argonauts of North Liberty (1888)
A Protégée of Jack Hamlin's; and Other Stories (1894)
Barker's Luck etc. (1896)
Several film versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have been made, including one in 1937 with Preston Foster and another in 1952 with Dale Robertson.
Tennessee's Partner (1955) with John Payne and Ronald Reagan was based on the story of the same name.
Paddy Chayefsky's treatment of the film version of Paint Your Wagon seems to borrow from "Tennessee's Partner": two close friends – one named "Pardner" – share the same woman. The spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse is based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "The Luck of Roaring Camp".
The Soviet movie Armed and Dangerous (Russian: Вооружён и очень опасен, 1977) is based on Gabriel Conroy and another of Harte's stories.
Operas based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" include those by Samuel Adler and by Stanford Beckler.
Bret Harte Memorial in San Francisco
Bret Harte Village in the Gold River community of Sacramento County. Sacramento, California
Bret Harte Court, a street in Sacramento, California
Bret Harte Library, a public library in Long Beach, California
Bret Harte Hall, Roaring Camp Railroads Felton, California
Bret Harte High School in Angels Camp, California is named after him.
Bret Harte Lane in Humboldt Hill, California.
Bret Harte Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois
Bret Harte Preparatory Middle School (Vermont Vista) South Los Angeles, California
Bret Harte Middle School in San Jose, California
Bret Harte Middle School in Oakland, California
Bret Harte Middle School in Hayward, California
Bret Harte High School in Altaville, California is named after him and celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005
Bret Harte Elementary in Corcoran, California
Bret Harte Elementary in San Francisco, California
Bret Harte Elementary in Burbank, California
Bret Harte Elementary in Cherry Hill, New Jersey
Bret Harte Elementary in Sacramento, California
Bret Harte Elementary School in Modesto, California
A community called The Shores of Poker Flat, California claims to have been the location of Poker Flat, although it is usually accepted that the story takes place further north.
Bret Harte Road in Frimley (the town in which Harte was buried) is named after him.
Bret Harte Place in San Francisco, California is named after him.
In 1987 he appeared on a $5 U.S. Postage stamp, as part of the "Great Americans series" of issues.
Bret Harte Lane, Bret Harte Road, and Harte Ave in San Rafael, California.
Bret Harte Road in Berkeley, California.
Bret Harte Road in Redwood City, California.
Bret Harte Road in Angels Camp, California.
Bret Harte Road and Bret Harte Drive in Murphys, California.
Bret Harte Avenue in Reno, Nevada.
Bret Harte House, at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California.
Bret Harte Park in Danville, California.
The town of Twain Harte, California, is named after Mark Twain and Bret Harte.