I call this an upset victory because I am a big, life-long fan of Ernest Hemingway. Yes, I know. Don’t bother going there, I know all about it. And I’m still a big fan. I’ll go to my grave arguing that all American fiction, probably all writing, changed after Ernest Hemingway. He’s that important. I’ll stand alone on the burning deck while the ship sinks around me if it comes to that, proclaiming Hemingway’s greatness to the bitter, bitter end. I’ll just use fewer adverbs when I do it, and not so many commas.
But Bret Harte really won me over.
Both of Harte’s stories in this round were survival tales, set in the midst of very bad weather, one severe rain the other a sudden snow storm. Each leaves a group of travelers stranded, forced to accept aid from strangers. Each turned out to be about our common humanity in ways I did not expect in a “Gold Rush tale.”
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is the more well-known title so I’ll focus on it. A group of social misfits, probably each small time criminals in some way, are forced to leave town by the citizens of Poker Flat. On their way to the nearest town, through a difficult mountain trail, they encounter a newly wed couple, innocents headed back towards Poker Flat. They join up when a sudden snow storm occurs, forcing them to take refuge in a nearby shelter, something meant to be temporary.
The group is stuck, due to the deep snow and the treachery of one outcast who steals all of their mules during their first night. What follows is a survival tale as the days go by and their food begins to run out. The twist is that the remaining outcasts each begin to make sacrifices in the hopes of keeping the newly wed couple alive. Their lives have been largely wasted, but they want to make sure this innocent couple both genuinely good people have a chance at survival.
This may have been a fresh plot in Bret Harte’s day, but I doubt it. It’s certainly a standard set up by now. But I was won over. Once I got used to the slightly stilted writing style, something I think is the result of being written for a mid-19th century American readership not bad writing, I was caught up in the story. I cared about the people and wanted them all to live, though I did not expect them to. Harte was writing for an audience well used to tales of the Donner Party, so I suppose everyone expected a bad outcome. When it came, it came in a satisfying way. By that I mean it all worked as a darn good story.
I remembered “Indian Camp” as being much better than I found it to be this time around. The other story, something found and added to make up The Nick Adams Stories a kind of linked story volume, was not something I would have published. It’s an early piece, something that showed promise, but not something complete enough to leave that bottom drawer most writers have where they keep works that just never quite jelled.
“Indian Camp” features a very young Nick Adams, a child, on a fishing trip with his father and uncle when his father, the local doctor, is called to a nearby Native American village where a pregnant woman is having a very difficult delivery. Thinking his son will witness a birth, the father allows him into the tent with the woman. No one notices that her husband had killed himself, unable to stand his wife’s screams.
There’s some wonderful writing in “Indian Camp” especially towards the end, and if it was just this one against “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” I might have gone for Hemingway this round. But the inclusion of the other piece, the shorter thing some editor stuck into the book because why not I guess, lessened the overall reading experience. Bret Harte had two very good stories this time around, while Ernest Hemingway had one nearly great story and one that felt unfinished.
So the win goes to Bret Harte who advances to the next round.
But, I’ll be keeping my copy of The Nick Adams Stories. “Big Two-Hearted River” is in there, somewhere towards the end. That one is great. And “The Killers” and “The End of Something” and “The Three Day Blow.” Lots of stuff that I remember as being good.