A Source for ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’

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Readers have puzzled over the origin of ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ (1868), the tragicomic tale of a baby born in a California mining camp and the first piece of writing to bring national acclaim to author Bret Harte. Biographer George Stewart declared in 1931, ‘The sudden appearance of the Luck was about as close to a miracle as one finds in literary history’.1 Gary Scharnhorst brought the miracle down to earth when he discovered that Bret Harte and his wife had lost an infant son ten months before the story’s publication.2 This fact helped to explain—perhaps—Harte’s choice of subject (a birth) and the sentimental tone that Stewart called a ‘conversion’ from Harte’s satiric early journalism.3 But the archive of California ephemera holds another backstory. A speech given by a California visitor in 1864 anticipated multiple features of Bret Harte’s breakout short story.

The connection between the speech and Bret Harte may be traced to Harte’s first appearance on a title page (Figure 1). On 9 September 1864, the San Francisco chapter of the Society of California Pioneers celebrated the anniversary of California’s statehood with a parade, a speech, a commissioned poem, and a reception. The job office of the Daily Alta California printed the speech, the poem, and the newspaper’s account of the day in a thirty-two-page booklet.4 The orator was a five-month visitor to the Pacific coast and Unitarian minister from New York City, Henry Whitney Bellows, known for founding a medical relief society for soldiers’ aid.5 Twenty-eight-year-old Bret Harte contributed the poem. Since Harte’s poem-of-the-day also appeared elsewhere, the booklet would seem to be (for Harte scholarship) a surplus edition of a text already known, merely a proud chapter in the life of a young author, but for the contents of Bellows’s lecture. The seasoned orator engaged his audience with a notable figure of speech—the allegoric figure of an infant California raised by the state’s mining pioneers. ‘The Luck of Roaring Camp’ echoes this figure of speech as well as other features of Bellows’s text.