In 1868, nearly two decades had passed since the discovery of gold in California had filled the American West with prospectors, prostitutes, gunslingers and gamblers from across the United States. In those two decades, the experience of the West had begun to inspire the creation of a new American literature spun out of tall tales, plain speech, and the quick wits and sharp eyes of Western newspapermen like Sam Clemens. In 1867, Clemens—writing under the now-famous pseudonym Mark Twain—launched his national literary career with his tale “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which started life as a tall tale told in a miner’s shack on Jackass Hill, at the worn-out edge of the Mother Lode. A year later, there was enough of a literary scene in San Francisco that Anton Roman could confidently set up a new literary journal, the Overland Monthly, as a Western rival of Boston’s venerable Atlantic Monthly. As editor of the new journal, Roman installed another rising star on the Western literary scene, Francis Bret Harte.
One of Bret Harte’s first contributions to the Overland Monthly was his classic “sketch” (short story), “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” The story is short and simple. In the rough California mining town of Roaring Camp, a dying prostitute named Cherokee Sal gives birth to a child. The child, given the name Thomas Luck, is adopted and raised by the miners, and their rough but tender-hearted affection for “the d----d little cuss” brings about the moral regeneration of Roaring Camp. It’s the story of Christ—word gets out that the men of Roaring Camp “worship an Ingin baby”—transposed to the Wild West, ending in both apocalypse and redemption.
A winning combination of gritty Western local color and late Victorian sentimentality assured the story’s success. A reviewer in 1870 wrote: “As for the story of the ‘Luck of Roaring Camp,’ we question if there is any short story in English at once so significant, so variedly expressive, so beautiful in its management of rude and common forms of life. It is an incomparable story of the redemption of a wild and vicious and coarse settlement, by the purest and loveliest feelings and influences that can touch a human heart.” The story even inspired this 1880 painting by Henry Bacon, which was just the kind of sentimental genre picture that showed up in chromolithographic form on the walls of late Victorian parlors.
It’s perhaps difficult for a jaded reader of today to recapture the effect that “The Luck of Roaring Camp” had on its first readers nearly a century and a half ago. The reviewer of 1870, quoted above, concluded: “Bret Harte has deepened and broadened our literary and moral sympathies; he has broken the sway of the artificial and conventional; he has substituted actualities for idealities—but actualities that manifest the grandeur of self-sacrifice, the beauty of love, the power of childhood, and the ascendancy of nature.” It was that combination of realism and moral vision that readers found new and compelling in 1868.
I did find the bewildered affection of the miner “Kentuck” for the child touching and humorous, and found the story interesting as an early example of the American realism that would flower in the work of Twain, Howells, Garland, and others. I also found it interesting that the story's Christ child is given the name "Luck." Part of the story's realism is that the miners encounter the divine not through religious faith, but through commonplace luck—the luck of prospectors and card players and survivors in the wild West. But at the end of the story, "luck" becomes a kind of grace.
On a second reading of the story, I noticed the names of the characters: French Pete, Cherokee Sal, Cockney Simmons, Kentuck, Boston... Harte's Roaring Camp is a true melting pot, and in the harmony that reigns after the birth of Luck, he seems to offer a vision of an inclusive community—a vision that can't, in the end, be sustained. The vision, while it lasts, even has a place for the lowliest of animals. In the absence of a human wet nurse, baby Luck is nursed on ass’s milk from Jinny, the camp’s donkey. I took this to be a broad, humorous touch reminiscent of Western tall tales. But I did a little research and discovered that ass’s milk was recommended, in the nineteenth century, as “the best substitute for the mother’s milk.” In the 1860s, a Mrs. Dawkins, of London, held the position of Purveyor of Ass’s Milk to the Royal Family, and obtained the much sought-after commodity by milking donkeys from the zoo in Regent’s Park.
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