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American Writers Who Were Diplomats: Bret Harte, The frontier writer as consul
by William Sommers

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 con-games 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 sufficient to guarantee his maximum stipend of $2,500 which, though small by any standard, would, with the addition of the capable and efficient Mr. Schneider, enable Bret Harte to write and lecture, estimating that he could earn another $2,500 from these activities and improve his lifestyle while keeping his home-bound family afloat…but still in the US!

Unfortunately, Harte did not have a post report immediately handy when he accepted Crefeld, and was not prepared for the climate. He found it a damp and misty land, one that almost immediately began to affect his health, which grew worse the longer he stayed in Crefeld. Moreover, Bret was not one to keep his likes and dislikes to himself and bear up quietly under the hardships; he had, of course, no American Foreign Service Association to complain to and no general services officer to request changes in his living accommodations. His letters home and even some of his dispatches became, among other things, a catalogue of the ills he suffered in what he considered the disheartening climate of Crefeld. It was as well a sign of his enveloping hypochondria.

Nevertheless, he did start to put consular affairs in manageable condition, which would, in turn, allow him to attend to his own pursuits as well. He writes plaintively to the Department, for example, that he needed a new tariff schedule “… there being no copy in the archives of this office more recent than that for the year 1869.” In cooperation with the efficient Mr. Schneider, Mr. Harte extended the office hours to accommodate the certification of shippers, thus enabling them to ship their goods by  “… the weekly steamer via Bremen.” At the same time he reduced the paperwork processing and instead of following the usual practice of holding the invoices for 25 hours, devised a system of ready processing so that shippers received their invoices within a few hours of filing. As a result, fee returns increased dramatically. By the end of the first quarter of 1879, fee collections had increased by over $170,000 and, by the end of the year, the overall increase amounted to $1,750,000. Unfortunately for the money-less Harte, this increased efficiency did not show up in his paycheck since his maximum was still $2,500. What Bret Harte undoubtedly needed was a good union representative to plead his case in Washington!


Though he may have lost a good deal of his literary talent, his wit remained intact. When the Department queried him on whether or not he could distribute surplus copies of a new publication, “The Wealth of the United States,” Bret replied that the only “public or private institution or society that would in all probability require a copy” would be the Chamber of Commerce, and he had his doubts about that. The weather still troubled Harte, who reported to the Department in October 1879: “In mitigation of the fact that it has rained every other day in the year in this district, it may be added that the general gloom has been diversified and monotony relieved by 29 thunderstorms and one earthquake!”Though Harte had much to learn about the ways of administration he was nevertheless quick to correct himself once a mistake became evident. Late in 1879 he investigated a customs complaint by one of the export manufacturers in his district. In an attempt to solve the problem he wrote directly to the Secretary of Treasury, a no-no then as well as now! Discovering his mistake, and suffering the silent treatment from his superiors, he wrote to the Department confessing: “I may have erred in addressing myself directly to the Secretary of Treasury and that under such circumstances should have sent the information to you as a report from this agency. I had, however, no precedent to guide me… I shall be glad to be instructed on this point by the Department.” Whether or not the “instructions” followed is not recorded in the consular papers but it is clear that Harte already knew the answer.

Hard on the heels of this learning experience came a Departmental inquiry that must have sent him into the consular laughing corner. The Department, under pressure from Congress because of the establishment of a Mormon state in Utah, sent a query to Mr. Harte, and presumably to other consular offices, on the extent of Mormon immigration from the cities to which they were posted. After diligent inquiry and conversation with the local authorities, Harte was able to report that  “… there is not now and never has been any Mormon immigration from Crefeld —nor an immigration of people likely to become converts to that faith. Its name as well as its tenets are unknown to the inhabitants.” In fact, noted Harte, Crefeldites were “… adverse to immigration for any purpose and a prolific household with one wife seems to exclude any polygamous instinct” in the Crefeld population.

Looking for a transfer

But for all that, Harte was not happy in Crefeld. He absented himself frequently to give lectures in England, to promote the sale of his stories and to travel for his health to Switzerland and other places on the continent. He tried hard to write stories that used the German locale and published “The Heiress of Red Dog,” a group of recently completed short stories which also included “A Legend of Sammstadt,” set in the Rhineland countryside. His health, at least from Harte’s view, was in shambles and he complained at once of neuralgia, rheumatism, dyspepsia, bronchitis, biliousness, bad teeth and hay fever. It was a catalogue of ills that would have kept a first-class embassy infirmary busy for months on end. So he turned his attention to the Department in search of a transfer. “I venture to hope,” he wrote toward the end of 1879, “that the Department may be able to suggest some exchange of position for me whereby my services may be retained under more favorable climatic conditions. I am emboldened to believe that after these 15 months of my incumbency the importance of my office has increased so as to render it a not unworthy exchange with a better known and more prominent consulate.” The last part of his request was prompted by a recent trip to England, where he learned that the consul at Bradford, a much smaller place than Crefeld, earned a magnificent $8,000 a year!

Mr. Harte, despairing once more of ever being able to rise higher in the consular service, and on sick leave with a sore throat, read in the March 30, 1880, issue of the London Times that President Hayes had indeed, appointed him to be the consul at Glasgow at a salary of $3,000, with earnings from fees bringing in another $1,000. It was not Bradford but it was a definite step up the ladder. In Glasgow, at least, he would be accorded the rank of consul and be within easy reach of London, where Harte had already made a name for himself among England’s most prestigious literati. The new salary contained enough of an increase to, in turn, raise the monthly allowance for his family in New Jersey.

His leave-taking in Crefeld, however, was not altogether pleasant. The German papers, on hearing of his appointment to Glasgow and having gotten used to the fact that he was a prominent American author living in their midst, reacted with sorrow and indignation. Rumors abounded that he was being transferred because of his heavy drinking, a story that Harte made one of the newspapers retract. Coincidentally, nearly 100 years later, on June 25, 1983, the Vice President of the United States, while leaving the city at the end of a goodwill visit to Crefeld, found his motorcade, as well as his own car, pelted with rocks and bottles by peace activists protesting the deployment of U.S. missiles in Germany. Though separated by almost 100 years of history, departure from Crefeld still proved to be difficult.

Valuable aide

Bret Harte was replaced in Crefeld by one Joseph S. Potter who, it is hoped, fared better there than the not-so-long suffering author. Harte’s papers were slow in arriving in England and it was not until July 24, 1880, that he officially took over the consulate at Glasgow. As at Crefeld, Harte was fortunate in having an efficient and thoroughly reliable vice consul in the person of William Gibson. Like so many local-hire employees that have kept embassies, AID missions and consulates running smoothly while the American officialdom have come and gone at the whims of assignment boards,  Gibson had been vice consul since 1874 and was to remain long after Bret  Harte’s departure. At the same time, there grew up between Harte and Gibson a genuine friendship.

This enabled Bret to oversee the consulate in its general administration, leaving the details to Gibson and his staff of four clerks, three of whom were reimbursed their salaries directly from Harte’s own fees.

Glasgow was an important and busy consulate with a sub-unit in nearby Greencock. The export trade alone was valued at nearly $10 million, mostly in pig iron, textiles and chemicals. With a larger staff and a busy seaport to contend with, Harte changed his tactics regarding the Department and sent in voluminous reports on important developments in which he felt the Department might have an interest. He became a political officer, economic reporter and military attaché all in one and, though the legwork was done by his clerical staff and carefully screened by the redoubtable Gibson, it was Harte’s direction that kept up the constancy of the reporting. He described the construction of two British warships in the Clyde River, the building of ship engines for an Italian vessel, the exportation of cement fire bricks from Scotland and an invention for collecting gases evolved from furnaces. He submitted a report in 1882 that covered the intriguing Scottish practice of selling off tenement rental flats to individual owners, perhaps the first description of the “condominium” to enter Department records or, for that matter, to have been reported in the United States. At the same time, his submission of a voucher for $90 to cover the cost of a table and bookcase for his office was disallowed by the Department’s treasury section!

U.S. sailors’ graves

Perhaps the most appealing incident in Harte’s tenure as consul in Glasgow came as a result of a trip to the island of Iona, which was within his consular district. Here he found “in the consecrated ground of the ruined Cathedral the graves of nineteen American seamen who had perished in the wreck of the Guy Manning on the evening of the 31st of December, 1865 on the north coast of the island.” Their interment was marked off by a series of low granite pediments connected by an iron chain which had been erected and paid for by the Duke of Argyll. Mr. Harte was so struck with the drama involved in this unknown and unacknowledged treatment of lost American sailors, that he immediately wrote the Department asking that recognition of the Duke’s remarkable act by thankfully acknowledged by the United States. The Department adopted his suggestion and subsequently wrote a letter of thanks to the Duke. At Harte’s further suggestion, the Department authorized the construction of a monument to the sailors. Bret Harte, playing the discreet diplomat, successfully negotiated permission from the Duke to erect an obelisk. The consul was then able to report to the Department in a dispatch dated October 27, 1882: “I caused to be erected on the island of Iona, within the consular district, a stone obelisk, to commemorate the burial place of certain shipwrecked American seamen. The obelisk, a sketch of which is hereto annexed, is of simple design, ten and one half feet high, and made of silver grey granite.” A marker was attached to the base which, as Hartereported, contained these words: “To Commemorate Their Loss and the Kindness of Their Benefactor, the Government of the United States Has Erected This Stone in the Year of Our Lord, 1882.”

And yet Harte’s cultivated discontent, perhaps with life in general, seemed to rise up and deprive him of his own validity as a man, as a consul, as writer. He kept up his by now preposterous façade of being as yet not settled enough to bring over his family. In Crefeld it was his bad health, the small salary and the imminence of a change in venue that made it impossible to accede to his wife’s frequent requests; in Glasgow he fastened on the fact that, since there was to be a change in administration in Washington, his own job may be in jeopardy. In actual fact he had solidified his standing with the new administration by contributing a preface to a poplar biography of the new president, James Garfield. Though Mr. Garfield’s assassination again made the political situation uncertain, his successor, Chester Arthur, was a status quo president from the start. But by now the reunification of the family took on the mantle of an abandoned dream. As one of Harte’s biographers concludes: “There was apparently no great quarrel to separate husband and wife and no great love to bring them together.” While the Foreign Service has been known for the hardships its constant moves and erratic separation visit upon family life, in Mr. Harte’s case it was more a matter of personality and preference and less a matter of distance.

Nor did Glasgow prove a boon to Harte’s health. If Crefeld’s misty atmosphere had promoted his growing hypochondria, Glasgow with its fog, rain and industrial smoke only intensified his concern over failing health. In one of his frequent letters to his wife, Mr. H complains: “It rained every day for three weeks in Scotland… and my dreadful neuralgia was returning. I cannot make you understand the terribly depressing effect of that moist dull atmosphere and the perpetual gloom of the sky…”

A writer again

As a writer, however, Brett Harte seemed to flourish once again. After getting established in his consulate, he took up his pen and produced a string of short stories, many focusing on the city of St. Kentigern, his literary Glasgow. During these years he published at least two volumes. “A Sappho of Green Springs” and “Colonel Starbottle’s Clients”: some critics even discerned a halting return to the Harte of “Tennessee’s Partner.” In London, a city that had always given Harte a warm and appreciating reception, he returned again and again for lectures, visits with his publisher, literary gatherings and the by now inevitable “rest and relaxation” which Harte found absolutely necessary to his survival.

But it was these frequent trips to London and elsewhere that got him into serious trouble with the Department and around which a series of anecdotes grew. One story, printed in the local papers, related that in the fourth year of his consulate, Mr. Harte stuck his head out of the train window on his arrival at Glasgow and asked: “What station is this?” In consular circles he was often referred to as the “Consul of the United States at Glasgow, resident in London.” Records show that over the course of his five-year tenure at Glasgow, he sent some 562 letters and telegrams to the ever-present Gibson on matters of consular concern; while he had developed an extraordinary ability to run the consular office by long-distance, the frequency of his absences was a matter of more than a little concern to his superiors.

Sketch of books by Bret Harte

Three of Bret Harte’s best-known stories

In November 1882 Bret. Harte received a curt letter from the Department asking for an explanation of his frequent absences and requesting more specifics on his whereabouts. His reply is a masterpiece of studied equivocation.

Having by this time mastered a few tricks of the bureaucratic establishment, Harte lost no time in referring the inquiring Department to his previous reports, a device proven effective over the years. “I have the honor to acknowledge,” he began, “the receipt of Department dispatch No. 35” and “in reply thereto must first request the Department to refer to my quarterly reports during the past year — each of which is accompanied by a certificate of absence beyond the usual limit and properly signed by me.” That the Department would be able to locate his reports for the past year was, at best, conjectural. With a certain amount of hauteur, Mr. Harte goes on to explain: “As I do not keep a diary, I cannot, however, give the Department the exact date of those absences allowed in the terms of the certificate as I did not look upon them as absences from my post.” What the Department’s current grievance board might do with that explanation is better left unsaid! Harte admits, however, that “half-holidays, local fast days and Sundays” were not spent in Glasgow since the merchants with whom the consular offices dealt were not around either. In a final burst of Old West pique, the Consul of Glasgow concludes that, if the charges of frequent absence alluded to in the letter “carry with them the imputation of any inattention, negligence or delay in my duties or those of my subordinates, I thank the Department for giving me this opportunity of utterly denying them.” So there!

Political tide turns

But time and political support were running out on Bret Harte. Though he sent in even more voluminous reports on labor conditions, on the market price of highland wool and on the sugar industry at Greenock, the political tides in the United States were turning against the entrenchment of successive Republican administrations. March 4, 1885, saw the inauguration of Grover Cleveland. Under a new Secretary of State, Bret Harte, as well as other consuls, began to receive curt notes about mistakes in their reports. While Harte made his excuses as best he could, more reprimands were to follow. The skids were being greased. Not unexpectedly he read in the July 18 edition of the London Times (at that time the Department’s reliable personnel bulletin) that he was being replaced because of what the paper called “inattention to duty.”

A charming, though perhaps apocryphal, tale attributes Harte’s downfall to one of his own short stories. President Cleveland had gone fishing in the Adirondacks early in the summer of 1885. While there, he idly picked up a copy of The New York Sun and by chance read one of Mr. Harte’s stories, which he did not like. He turned to his private secretary and asked him “to remind me to have that fellow removed when we get back to Washington.” Whatever the truth of the story, the results were the same. On August 20, 1885, Bret Harte was replaced as consul for Glasgow by Francis Vanderwood.*

Harte retired to London and, for the next 17 years continued to write, lecture, nurse his delicate health and fend off reunification with his family. He wrote a short novel, worked on a number of never-produced plays, and published perhaps 100 short stories, including “The Convalescence of Jack Hamlin” and “Prosper’s Old Mother,” two of his better humorous pieces. He is thought to have developed throat cancer early in 1902 but, as usual, blamed his deterioration on the weather. Then on May 5, 1902, Francis Bret Harte passed on to the special part of the Elysian Fields reserved for diplomats and consuls who were also writers.End.


* We acknowledge with gratitude the following addendum from Dr. Nicholas M. Keegan of Durham, UK., ed:
Harte was replaced as consul in Glasgow by Francis Henry Underwood in 1885, not by Francis Vanderwood. Underwood remained in post until 1889. After a break in service he was appointed consul in Leith/Edinburgh, Scotland in 1893. However, it was a brief posting as he died suddenly there the following year. The Edinburgh authorities accorded him an impressive funeral, with a full military escort which accompanied him to the local railway station where his remains were transported to Glasgow, the birthplace of his wife. He was buried in the Glasgow Necropolis. The local consular corps in both cities were also in attendance.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

William and Joan Sommers
William and Joan Sommers

William Sommers, a graduate of Middlebury College, along with a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Littaeur Center (known now as the JFK School), spent many years in local government operations in the United States and also, appended to that experience, worked overseas on local government development in Thailand, Philippines, Korea, Egypt, Poland, Hungary, Indonesia and Bosnia. Bill’s wife — Joan — was the stalwart in all of this, having graduated from the Chicago Art Institute, and in all the confusion of a life focused on moving and traveling, raised six children, and — at the same time — ingested the art values of every country in which the Sommers family lived and held art shows where ever they were stationed. While she is well known for her Chinese calligraphy and related paintings, she, nevertheless, took time to enhance Bill’s frequent articles on writers who had worked in the American diplomatic service — thus illustrating the likes of Hawthorne, Bret Harte, William Dean Howells, Washington Irving and a host of others.

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