Bret Harte’s short story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is one of the most anthologized examples of the subgenre of American literature known as Regionalism. The identifying characteristics of Regionalism include and emphasis on replicating dialect and speech patterns, highlighting the customs and traditions of a culture and emphasizing the influence of geographical factors in the daily lives of the those living within the region being explored. The irrefutable master of Regionalism in American prose is, of course, Mark Twain, but “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is as much an elemental entry into any serious overview of the subgenre as anything Twain ever wrote.
Like most writers who served to create the mythos of the frontier and the Wild West, Bret Harte was born back east. In fact, Harte hailed from about as far east as it is possible get in America: Albany, New York. A few years after gold was struck in California, Harte packed up and headed west where he would spend many years in aimless search of calling while finding temporary employment in jobs ranging from teacher to file clerk. The one factor unifying all his many varied working experiences was the surrounding setting: mining camps and boomtowns. As a result, whether earning money from tutoring or prospecting for gold himself, what Harte took away from each job was greater insight into the what life was like for those also trying to find their fortune in such a rugged and undeveloped region of the world.
Life spend in the full-time company of miners eventually resulted in a wealthy of material robust enough to fill story after story for Harte, but time has decided that “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is his unqualified greatest creation inspired by his own real-life experiences. The story was initially published in Overland Monthly magazine in 1869 and today it is very difficult to find an American literature textbook which does include lessons on the story. The first of story was first adapted for film in 1919 and four more followed. Somewhat surprising, perhaps, is the lack of a new film version of the story in more than half a century. Even more surprising may be that “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” has found success in a place far removed from that rugged, hardscrabble terrain in which it is set: opera houses across the world. The story was transformed into an opera in 1959.
It is in its original form as one of the literary foundations that helped to mythologize the American frontier that “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” still finds its widest audience, however, as a new crop of schoolchildren are introduced to the colorful inhabitants of Poker Flat with each passing year.