BRET HARTE (1836-1902)
It may at first seem surprising that the writer best known for putting the California of Gold Rush days on the literary map also produced «The Stolen Cigar Case,» a story widely regarded as the quintessential Sherlockian parody. But Bret Harte, who also did a great deal to establish the formula used in Westerns to this day, was a master of generic conventions and a skilled editor and literary critic. This story, and others collected in two volumes of Condensed Novels, were written to indulge Harte's passion for critiquing the very conventions that were the mainstays of his and other writers' popular success.
Born Francis Bret Harte in Albany, New York, in 1836, he was a precocious child who at the age of five burlesqued his school primers. He was raised in the eastern United States, where he moved from school to school according to his father's varying ability to pay tuition. His father changed the family name to Harte a year before he died. Soon afterward, the teenage Harte began to support himself, establishing a lifelong pattern of moving from job to job while pursuing his writing.
At the age of eighteen, Harte joined his remarried mother in California, where he was to spend the next sixteen years of his life. His first six years out west were not successful in terms of either literary or ordinary employment. But in drifting from job to job and dabbling in experiences like riding shotgun on a stagecoach and tutoring ranchers' children, he gathered a wealth of material that he would mine for years as he put 'Bret Harte Country' on the literary map.
Harte's connections with literary journals and newspapers ranged from writing for them to physically printing them. He simultaneously lost his job and made a name for himself when, in February 1860, he strongly editorialised about a massacre of Indians perpetrated by whites. Left in charge of the «Northern Californian» while the editor was away, he printed such bold statements about a rival paper and the local sheriff that he was fired within the month.
In his non-fiction and lectures, Harte revealed that he despised the corruption and lawlessness of the very world in which he chose to set his fiction. In his literary criticism, he disdained the use of formula and stock characters while unabashedly using both to his advantage in his highly popular fiction.
If «The Stolen Cigar Case» is one of Harte's most lasting gems, it may be because in it he could dissect and use to his advantage both formula and someone else's stock characters. And at the same time he could indulge a bad boy's sense of play.