The Luck of Roaring Camp


Bret Harte

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The Luck of Roaring Camp Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Bret Harte

Bret Harte was born in Albany, New York in 1836. By age 13, he was working full-time to support his family and was no longer attending school. He eventually moved to California, where he worked his way through a series of unrelated and odd jobs, including a gold prospector, drugstore clerk, schoolteacher, and stagecoach guard. After working in the printing business for a time, he turned to writing, and in 1868, he was appointed editor of a new regional magazine called the Overland Monthly. It was in this magazine that Harte published “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” two of his best-known short stories. After landing a lucrative contract with The Atlantic Monthly, Harte moved to the East Coast and was immediately welcomed into the literary scenes of Boston and New York. However, Harte’s fame soon became debilitating, and he found it extremely difficult to come up with new content. After losing his writing contract because of his poor output, Harte worked as a U.S. commercial agent in Germany and then as a U.S. consul in Scotland. In 1885, he moved to London, where he spent the remainder of his life. He died of throat cancer in 1902.
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Historical Context of The Luck of Roaring Camp

“The Luck of Roaring Camp” briefly alludes to the California Gold Rush in its mentions of gold. The California Gold Rush began in 1848 when a man named James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. When news of Marshall’s windfall spread, over 300,000 people flocked to California to try their hand at finding gold. This influx of people allowed California to enter into statehood in 1850. Population growth was enormous, as San Francisco transformed to a modest settlement of several hundred residents to a town of 36,000 people in less than 10 years. However, the Gold Rush negatively impacted indigenous populations, as Native American people often faced violence or were pushed off of their own land. (Interestingly, the one Native American character in “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is Cherokee Sal, a prostitute who dies in childbirth, which seems to gesture toward the difficulties that Native American people faced during this time.) 

Other Books Related to The Luck of Roaring Camp

Like “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” features a group of rough-and-tumble characters who are bound together by a common purpose: surviving a winter storm in the mountains. Both stories feature a notorious gambler named Oakhurst and feature terrible tragedies born of natural disasters, highlighting the unforgiving nature of the Old West. Other notable writers who brought the American West to life include Willa Cather, whose novel My Antonia is set in the fictional town of Black Hawk, Nebraska (based on Cather’s own hometown of Red Cloud, Nebraska), as well as John Steinbeck, whose novel Cannery Row illustrates life on the coast of Northern California. (“The Luck of Roaring Camp” is also set in Northern California, given its reference to the Sierra Nevada mountains and redwood trees, which are native only to California.) In addition, many of Robinson Jeffers’s poems, such as “November Surf,” highlight the wildness and brutality of the Western landscape that appears toward the end of “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”
Key Facts about The Luck of Roaring Camp
  • Full Title: The Luck of Roaring Camp
  • When Written: Late 1860s
  • Where Written: California
  • When Published: August 1868
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Story; Western; Local Color
  • Setting: A mining settlement called Roaring Camp in Northern California, 1851
  • Climax: A massive winter flood rips through Roaring Camp, killing Kentuck and the Luck
  • Antagonist: Outsiders
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Luck of Roaring Camp

Famous Fan. In the margins of his copy of “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” Mark Twain scribbled the words, “good. This is Bret’s very best sketch, and most finished—nearly blemishless.”

Fame is a Fickle Friend. When Harte moved east for his job with The Atlantic Monthly, the Eastern literary scene welcomed him warmly—perhaps too warmly. Harte was so idolized that he began to feel pressured and paralyzed by his newfound status as a celebrity. His writing suffered greatly, and he only managed to publish a handful of stories between 1873 and 1876.