If we search for the source of his great power we may not expect to find it; yet we may decide that among his endowments his extraordinary power of absorption contributes very largely. His early reference to “eager absorption” and “photographic sensitiveness” are singularly significant expressions. Experience teaches the plodder, but the man of genius, supremely typified by Shakespeare, needs not to acquire knowledge slowly and painfully. Sympathy, imagination, and insight reveal truth, and as a plate, sensitized, holds indefinitely the records of the exposure, so Harte, forty years after in London, holds in consciousness the impressions of the days he spent in Tuolumne County. It is a great gift, a manifestation of genius. He had a fine background of inheritance and a lifetime of good training.
Bret Harte was also gifted with an agreeable personality. He was even-tempered and good-natured. He was an ideal guest and enjoyed his friends. Whatever his shortcomings and whatever his personal responsibility for them, he deserves to be treated with the consideration and generosity he extended to others. He was never censorious, and instances of his magnanimity are many. Severity of judgment is a custom that few of us can afford, and to be generous is never a mistake. Harte was extremely sensitive, and he deplored controversy. He was quite capable of suffering in silence if defense of self might reflect on others. His deficiencies were trivial but damaging, and their heavy retribution he bore with dignity, retaining the respect of those who knew him.
As to what he was, as man and author, he is entitled to be judged by a jury of his peers. I could quote at length from a long list of associates of high repute, but they all concur fully with the comprehensive judgment of Ina Coolbrith, who knew him intimately. She says, “I can only speak of him in terms of unqualified praise as author, friend, and man.”
In the general introduction that Harte wrote for the first volume of his collected stories he refers to the charge that he “confused recognized standards of morality by extenuating lives of recklessness and often criminality with a single solitary virtue” as “the cant of too much mercy.” He then adds: “Without claiming to be a religious man or a moralist, but simply as an artist, he shall reverently and humbly conform to the rules laid down by a great poet who created the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, whose works have lasted eighteen hundred years, and will remain when the present writer and his generations are forgotten. And he is conscious of uttering no original doctrine in this, but only of voicing the beliefs of a few of his literary brethren happily living, and one gloriously dead, [Footnote: Evidently Dickens.] who never made proclamation of this from the housetops.”