Published in 1868, Bret Harte’s short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is generally considered to be one of the first examples of new American literary genre about to explode onto the national scene and help carve out the identity of the still young nation: the local color story. It is arguable whether the story deserves to claim the title of the first since another writer who was spending time with Harte and miners around the same time had already published what is clearly a local color story at least in part three years earlier. Even Mark Twain may not be the right claimant, however, as his story of the jumping frog in Calaveras Country may actually have to take a backseat to the New York stories of Washington Irving. Some even credit Twain’s nemesis, James Fenimore Cooper, with being the true originator with his Leatherstocking Tales series of novels.
Regardless of whether Harte got there first or not, there is no denying that his story was the first achieve national acclaim and recognition for its presentation of the local flavor of the still mysterious western frontier in a way not even yet accomplished by Twain. The local color genre is essentially a literary endeavor which not only presents a story contained within a very specific and local setting (hence the name) but which makes the culture’s peculiar idiosyncrasies in speech, habits, legends and identity an essential and integral part of the storytelling.
As American began to expand further westward and develop manners and customs alien to established conventions in the East and South, readers were growing keen to get what would be for most them the closest glimpse they would ever be offered. The far western frontier towns of the California and surrounding territories were especially fascinating in light of the fact that the overwhelming majority of readers of magazines on the other side of the Mississippi River may as well have considered visiting Australia or the moon as entertain the likelihood of ever seeing these places for themselves.
As a result, despite the fact that in some ways the story also foresaw the mythologizing the West in its liberal attempts at being entirely factual in reporting of this local color, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” succeeded in making Harte as close to an overnight celebrity as it was possible to get in the age of horses and buggies and locomotives. Harte had originally headed to California like most others to find his fortune as a 49er striking it rich by mining gold. Instead, after spending time around the mining camps and soaking up the local color, he struck it rich by mining an untapped literary vein among American writers.
With readers across the country back home grabbing up copies of Overland Monthly containing the story, Bret Harte actually managed to briefly pull ahead of his friend and fellow traveler Twain before his main rival for the honor of creating the western local color story irrefutably eclipsed him: Mark Twain.