American writers who were diplomats: Bret Harte: the frontier writer as consul.


Throughout the long and distinguished history of the Department of State's Consular Service, a variety of colorful, wonderful--and strange - personalities have peopled its service. But no one personality has been more perplexing, enigmatic or elusive than that of Francis Bret Harte who served as commercial agent in Crefeld, Germany, from 1878 to 1880 and as consul in Glasgow, Scotland, from 1880 to 1885.

Bret Harte was born in 1836 in Albany, N.Y. At the ripe age of 17 he set out for California to become a journalist, writer and general literary roustabout in the spirit, and along with, such notables as Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller and Ambrose Bierce. By 1870 he had made his mark via the publication of "Luck of Roaring Camp," "Outcasts of Poker Flat" and "Tennessee's Partner," enshrined now as classic stories of the American West in the era of the gold rush, frontier mining camps and the savage new towns. By the time he was 40, however, his vein of literary talent seemed mined out and, though he was to continue to write and publish to the end of his life, nothing he did afterward measured up to his early success. Down on his luck, Harte arrived in Washington in 1876, hoping to conclude a publishing deal with a new magazine, The Capitol, while keeping himself, and his family, alive by writing potboilers for the Sunday supplement of the New York Post, stories that did nothing to enhance his literary reputation. Not surprisingly, the publishing venture fell through and Harte was confronted with the bleakest of prospects: the support of a wife and four children housed in Morristown, N.J., with no job, a dwindling market for his equally dwindling literary talents and a deterioration of his health that eventually took root in hypochondria.

His prospects were buoyed, however, when he turned to friends in the new Hayes Administration in hopes, like American writers before him, that he might find employment as an overseas consul where he could earn enough to keep himself and family alive and yet have time to write. John Hay, a writer of some repute, had just joined the State Department while Carl Schurz, a fellow journalist, was then Secretary of the Interior. Harte also learned that Frederick Seward, the son of the wartime Secretary and, happily, a classmate of Bret's father, was assistant secretary of state! Through these connections (an "old boy's network" even then), Mr. Harte secured an interview with President Hayes, who promised him a suitable consulate abroad. After the usual false starts, tentative assignments and reassignments, Harte learned in April, 1878 that he was to become US Consul in Crefeld, Germany. Elated that he had at last the real thing in hand, Harte prepared his letter of acceptance. But the appointment was delayed because of machinations that nearly deprived him of the assignment, a situation which one hopes no longer pervades assignments at State in these days of enlightenment!

The Mark Twain connection

Questions had been raised about Bret Harte and his substantial debts. And Mark Twain, no friend of Harte's since their rivalry in the rough-and-tumble days of Western journalism, wrote President Hayes, decrying the proposed appointment, intimating that Harte was unfit to represent the United States abroad. In fact, Twain was to write, years later, that Bret Harte "... hadn't any more passion for his country than an oyster has for its bed; in fact not so much and I apologize to the oyster." But Hayes did not give up and wrote to William Dean Howells, who had married the President's cousin. Hayes had already asked Howells about Bret Heart. With letter in hand Howells replied that Bret Harte should be appointed and the matter was settled. On May 11, 1878, Harte tendered his letter of acceptance along with the necessary bond (a requirement no longer in vogue in the consular service) and left to visit his family before taking up his new post.

While Harte had hoped to take his family to Germany, his meager resources, coupled with the fact that the Department in those days provided neither per diem, travel allowances nor dependent allotments for its consular employees, made the inclusion of his family impossible! But Harte did assure his wife that as soon as he had saved enough to cover the passage he would send for the family. He left Morristown, journeying to New York where he booked passage on June 28 aboard the Suevia bound for London, his first stop on the journey to Crefeld.

This was, however, to begin the strangest of the Harte anomalies. His leave-taking was to be his last; he never returned to the United States, never saw his family together again and saw his wife but once 25 years later when she visited him, ever so briefly, in London. It is undoubtedly the longest "separate maintenance allowance" period on record in the Department, except that there was no maintenance and the only allowance given the family was what Mr. Harte managed to send each month until his death in 1902. The whole of the family's relations with their husband and father was carried on in the thousands of letters which Harte wrote, a literary accomplishment that in many respects eclipsed much of his latter-day production. One of Harte's more critical biographers summed up this strange separation by saying: "His pseudo-bachelorhood, of which he had become very fond, would continue to the end of his life. In accomplishing this he was to play one of the longest congames in the annals of matrimony."

Bret Harte arrived in Crefeld on July 18, 1878, and began his briefing. It was here that it finally dawned upon him that he was not really a consul but a commercial agent for a district that had been carved out of a larger consulate. The senior consular officer, a Mr. Stanton, though deprived of the fee income when Crefeld was given to Harte, did his best to accommodate Bret, introduce him into the routine. Harte was also fortunate in recruiting an English-speaking native of Crefeld, Rudolph Schneider, who for $500 a year took over the detailed administration of the commercial agent's affairs. Mr. Harte was no linguist and, with no Foreign Service Institute to help out, he desperately needed someone like Schneider.

Time to moonlight

A small, pleasant city in the German Rhineland, Crefeld (also spelled Krefeld) did a brisk trade with the United States, exporting a variety of silks, velvet and other textiles. The agent's office was kept busy licensing this trade. Harte also learned that the trade was...

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