Thursday, July 25, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 93: Bret Harte, The Legend of Monte del Diablo (#132)

Bret Harte, "The Legend of Monte del Diablo" (1863) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Do people still read Bret Harte? As one my fields in grad school was 19th-century American literature, I know I read him; and I feel like his name comes up in some high school attempts to find fun older literature. But, by contrast, he doesn't have his own LoA book; and he might be the first named person I've run across that I can say that about. I mean, you expect Twain to have some books; you don't expect John Hay to have an LoA entry; and Bret Harte, well, he could go either way.

After reading this story, I feel less like Bret Harte needs his own collection. First, he only has a handful of stories that are his best and most famous--“The Luck of the Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” both mentioned in the LoA page. Second, this story is less interesting than those; it's presented as a legend for why Mt. Diablo (outside San Francisco) got its name, which, surprise, has to do with the devil tempting a good monk during the time of the Spanish missions. It's not very interesting, I think; and for once, I seem to be on the same page as the Atlantic's editor, who said it "failed to interest." (Though he still ran it.)

The main story may not be super interesting, but there are some interesting grace notes here. There's a lot of landscape description, which doesn't move the story very much, but does, in some small way, set up the disappointment of the monk: here he is, traveling in this pristine wilderness, thinking about saving the souls of all the Indians, when the Devil gives him a glimpse of the wilderness-destroying industry that will come from the East and that will kick out the Spanish missions. Well, can't argue with that since it, you know, happened. But I also can't really get into the struggle. Do I prefer conquistador gentility or Anglo industrial rapine? That's like reading a story called "The Tiger or the Tiger?"--I can't really see any upside here.

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