I saw many fabulous sites during my London trip this summer, and one of them was just around the corner from me.
I was staying a (very) small hotel near Bayswater Road and, though I was only there for 10 days, I miss my old neighborhood.
I’d take my morning walks in Hyde Park, catch the tube at the Lancaster Gate Underground Station, and whenever I got the munchies, I’d bounce around the corner, walk by the Greek restaurant that was always packed, and get fruit, cheese, or similar stuff at one of two grocery stores.
On the way back to my hotel one night, I saw a plaque on an empty building on the corner that had been put up by the Greater London Council which honored the American author Francis Bret Harte, who lived in London for several years before his death in 1902.
I know that name, I thought. I know I do. Now, who the hell is he…?
The title “Outcasts of Poker Flat” emerged from my old high school English class memories, followed by absolutely nothing else. I had to learn more.
Harte, who was born in Albany in 1836, was a writer and poet, best known for writing stories about the California gold rush. He moved out west in 1853 and held various jobs, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist.
While an assistant editor at the Northern Californian, Harte wrote a scathing editorial condemning the massacre of 80 to 200 Wiyots at the village of Tuluwat and was forced to leave town after receiving death threats.
I recently read (re-read?) “Outcasts of Poker Flat,” which was published in 1869, and another one of Harte’s best known stories, “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” published in 1868, when I returned from England and I was struck at how the brutality of nature features in both stories.
Gambling, luck, and extreme suffering are also themes in these stories. And both—semi-spoiler alert-- end tragically.
I watched a film version of Outcasts of Poker Flat with Preston Foster, which took elements from “The Luck of Roaring Camp” as well, but quite frankly, it didn’t work. Billed as “a flaming drama of the roaring days of the gold rush,” I found the film to be the dull and plodding.
Short stories often suffer when they’re expanded into full-length films, as they become weighed down by additional characters and contrived story lines.
There’s a 1952 film version starring Dale Robertson, a spaghetti western, called The Four of the Apocalypse based on the two stories and, even an opera. There's also a Russian film called Armed and Dangerous that's based on Harte stories.
Harte accepted the position of United States Consul Germany in May 1878, took a similar position in Glasgow, and settled in London in 1885. He died in Camberley, England in 1902 from throat cancer.
I get the feeling this neighborhood hasn’t changed much since Bret Harte’s time. The rows of buildings look like they’ve been there a long time and I hope it stays that way. And I hope Harte’s home is preserved.
I’m grateful to the Greater London Council for putting up the plaque and sending me off on this fact-finding mission. There’s more of Harte’s work I want to read and more famous authors I have to discover.