The Gold Rush Stories by Bret Harte (including "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", "The Luck of Roaring Camp", "Tennessee Partner" and others). Heydey Books. Trade Paperback. ISBN: 9780930588885. $13.95.
And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
-from "The Outcasts Of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte
Finally... Leisure. As some of you know I work in the gardening/plant industry these days and with the insane amount of snow we were just pummeled with I had to spend the last 24 hours working to remove the lovely white hell. Greenhouses, you see, are not exactly ideal load bearing structures.
Now, with snow removed and plants all cared for, I am able to join my reading brethren here in the North East and enjoy a day spent...reading.
Fate though would have me digging yet. After spending a night with my rugged snow removal cohorts I had a particular story in mind. One worthy of all the dick jokes and hard work. "The Outcasts Of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte is the best snow story, in my mind and the best of Harte's prolific career.
My life being in boxes, I knew the copy of The Luck Of Roaring Camp and Other Stories (containing the above story) was obscured by paper, cloth and cardboard. While shoveling out the gutters of our big foliage greenhouse I decided that I would just read it online. The book is in the public domain and would be easy to find online.
Sentimentality got the better of me. Sure, I could download it to a kindle (if I had one) or just read it on my laptop. But then I would be denying myself the pleasure of reading my 1894 edition (not a first, but an early impression), handsomely bound and easy to hold (the duodecimo is the best size for short story collections - I will hear no arguments) and bound by the good people of Houghton Mifflin over a century ago. They will have to make a scratch and sniff Kindle if they ever plan on engaging the olfactory pleasures of reading an old book.
Bret Harte is a somewhat neglected writer, mainly due to a public feud he had with Mark Twain, the latter of which made sure to win even after the former had died. Because of Twain he has largely been characterized as a little too lacy for his old west subject matter. Perhaps the finest review of his work, in fact the work I am about to read, was made by the great one, Jorge Luis Borges, in a foreword he was writing to a Spanish language edition of a collection of Harte's works.
Borges spends three-quarters of his foreword explaining how insufferably stuffy Harte could be. He also hints at a fundamental shift in western or "tough guy" fiction brought on by the advent of the hard boiled writers of the twenties, thirties and forties. The somewhat contrived and oh too earnest (a shame there is such a thing) writing of Harte was buried under the avalanche of cool. His characters lacked in firepower, or so Borges hints.
In a classic twist of plot, Borges cleverly brings the reader to the realization that the characters of Harte's story are down-and-out types. A luckless gambler and an unwelcome whore provide the swarthy counter to an innocent young couple, all stranded in a blizzard as they flee Poker Flat for one reason or another.
The cold is a tough enemy and even the world-weary gambler, the ever collected Mr. John Oakhurst, has all he can handle to try and keep himself and the people in his company alive. Oakhurst is one of my favorite antiheroes in all of literature. He is a very real character. Flawed, disreputable, and yet also a man of action and fundamental humanity. Oakhurst has seen the bad deal down, but he has also done the right thing, not because he ought to but because it was right.
The growing power of the winter storm knows not about such things though. As in many of the stories in this collection, there is a grim limit to man's capabilities when confronted with nature's elemental power.
This is the story made to be read amidst dire weather. The odd combination of stultified life and dynamic strength mirror a blizzard well. Beyond the chilly setting , it is a story of redemption and violence. Harte was a writer that could truly show us the moral heights and base lows of humanity. He also could spin one hell of a yarn. Sure, it's a little sentimental and naive at times. No denying that. The language is contrived, just like Twain used to say. But when John Oakhurst staked the deuce of clubs to that fateful tree with his bowie knife, no one was calling him a sissy.