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This item is taken from PN Review 203, Volume 38 Number 3, January - February 2012.

We will not be allowed to forget that 2012 is the bicentenary of Charles Dickens's birth. Dickens the editor, the actor, the novelist, the traveller, the campaigner for international copyright. Dickens the self-impersonator, carrying like little bombs the private secrets that might, that did, detonate his reputation. Dickens who is still the English novelist and a great begetter of poets and biographers. Peter Robinson has edited an anthology of contemporary poems devoted to Dickens, due out in the new year. Visitors to will goggle at the activities surrounding the anniversary, bigger than the biggest Bloomsday, at least in 2012. After that returns will continue to diminish as they have done since the War, revived by occasional television adaptations or biographical flutter.

Dickens's hectic life as a performer is instructive. Philip Larkin refused to give readings: imagine going around the country impersonating yourself! Better to stay at home and not pretend to become the stable thing that criticism, the media and death reduce you to. Successful writers are pressured to stay the same, successful editors to repeat their successes, successful public performers trot out arias and encores, 'true to form'. John Ashbery is anxious about constructions of Americanness. Discussing his reception in England, he noted: 'Americans, if they're going to be accepted as writers, have to act “like Americans”. They have to be loud-mouthed, oratorical.' He reflects on Whitman's widespread acceptance, 'and they loved Bret Harte, whom nobody reads anymore, just because he came to England and walked around in boots and a cowboy hat. This is an American, so we can, you know, we can understand this, because the Americans are a bunch of Yahoos.'

Henry James (who never sported a Stetson) was puzzled by Harte, how he made his way as an author exploiting the Wild West, its geographies andpersonalities, a large nature framing the unrestrained impulses of man, to the exclusion of other subject matter. Was Harte's production the result of integrity of purpose, or did he understand that his market expected this of him? He understands, as Dickens does, instinctively. On Dickens's death in 1870 it was natural that Harte compose a sweet elegy for his favourite author. 'Dickens in Camp' begins way out West:

Above the pines the moon was slowly drifting,
    The river sang below;
The dim Sierras, far beyond, uplifting
    Their minarets of snow.

The roaring camp-fire, with rude humor, painted
    The ruddy tints of health
On haggard face and form that drooped and fainted
    In the fierce race for wealth;

Till one arose, and from his pack's scant treasure
    A hoarded volume drew,
And cards were dropped from hands of listless leisure
    To hear the tale anew...

It is The Old Curiosity Shop that the young man (yes, it is the author himself) shares with the wild crew of gamblers. It tames them:

The fir-trees, gathering closer in the shadows,
     Listened in every spray,
While the whole camp, with 'Nell' on English meadows,
     Wandered and lost their way.

And so in mountain solitudes - o'ertaken
     As by some spell divine -
Their cares dropped from them like the needles shaken
     From out the gusty pine.

The memory transports the poet back in time, and in space leads him to connect with another country and time.

Lost is that camp! But let its fragrant story
     Blend with the breath that thrills
With hop-vines' incense all the pensive glory
     That fills the Kentish hills.

And on that grave where English oak and holly
     And laurel wreaths intwine,
Deem it not all a too presumptuous folly,
     - This spray of Western pine!

It is well-judged, the clichés firmed up, the sentiment not mawkish and form instinctively efficient. Harte's popularity grew, and faded; he took a consular post in Germany, then Glasgow, finally retiring to London where he wrote more Westerns with success. Mark Twain disliked him and his use of dialect. It was too much like fiction, even as it pretended to be rooted in places and types Twain knew at first hand. It wouldn't do.

This last year Twain has been an unexpected bestseller again, while Harte is gone. Even his Condensed Novels and New Burlesques, spoofs of Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Cooper, Charlotte Brontë, Conan Doyle, Alexander Dumas, Kipling, Marie Corelli and Hall Caine, have vanished. His choice of Western subject matter and the ways he developed the Western genre show real skill, a transferable skill acquired by others who have crowded him off the map. He chose the West as Dickens chose English settings: they are what he knew, and when he goes beyond them he is no more secure than Dickens is when Martin Chuzzlewit steps into the American swamplands

A reporter asked Kipling what he thought of San Francisco. He replied that 'it was hallowed ground to me, because of Bret Harte. That was true. "Well," said the reporter, "Bret Harte claims California, but California don't claim Bret Harte. He's been so long in England that he's quite English."' Even Oscar Wilde admired Harte's wild (far) West of miners and gamblers almost without irony. As we raise a glass to Dickens, spare a thought for Harte, whose day may yet come even as Dickens's, after the bright lights of his bicentenary, gutters once again.

This item is taken from PN Review 203, Volume 38 Number 3, January - February 2012.

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