He was born in Albany, New York, as Francis Brett Hart. He was named after his great-grandfather Francis Brett, and his family name was Hart. When he was young his father changed the spelling of the family name from Hart to Harte. Later, Francis preferred to be known by his middle name, but he spelled it with only one "t", becoming Bret Harte.
He moved to California in 1853, later working there in a number of capacities, including miner, teacher, messenger, and journalist. He spent part of his life in the northern California coast town now known as Arcata, then just a mining camp on Humboldt Bay.
His first literary efforts, including poetry and prose, appeared in The Californian, an early literary journal edited by Charles Henry Webb. In 1868 he became editor of The Overland Monthly, another new literary magazine, but this one more in tune with the pioneering spirit of excitement in California. His story, "The Luck of Roaring Camp," appeared in the magazine's second edition, propelling Harte to nationwide fame.
When word of Dickens' death reached Bret Harte in July 1870, he immediately sent a dispatch across the bay to San Francisco to hold back the forthcoming publication of his Overland Monthly for twenty-four hours, so that he could compose the poetic tribute, Dickens in Camp. This work is considered by many of Harte's admirers as his masterpiece of verse, for its evident sincerity, the depth of feeling it displays, and the unusual quality of its poetic expression.
Bret Harte in 1868
Bret Harte's gravestone in the churchyard of St Peter's Church, Frimley, Surrey, England
Inscription on gravestone
Determined to pursue his literary career, in 1871 he and his family traveled back East, to New York and eventually to Boston, where he contracted with the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly for an annual salary of $10,000, "an unprecedented sum at the time." His popularity waned, however, and by the end of 1872 he was without a publishing contract and increasingly desperate. He spent the next few years struggling to publish new work (or republish old), delivering lectures about the gold rush, and even selling an advertising jingle to a soap company.
Andrew Carnegie, Round the World
In 1878 Harte was appointed to the position of United States Consul in the town of Krefeld, Germany and then to Glasgow in 1880. In 1885 he settled in London. During the thirty years he spent in Europe, he never abandoned writing, and maintained a prodigious output of stories that retained the freshness of his earlier work. He died in England in 1902 of throat cancer and is buried at Frimley. In 1987 he appeared on a $5 U.S. Postage stamp, as part of the "Great Americans" Series of issues.
Writing in his autobiography four years after Harte's death, Mark Twain famously insults Harte, characterizing him and his writing as insincere. He criticizes the miners' dialect, claiming it never existed outside of the story ("The Luck of Roaring Camp"). Twain reserves his most damning statements for Harte's personal life, especially after Harte left the West, including his habitual borrowing of money from his friends with no intent to repay, his haughty attitude and his financial abandonment of his wife and children.