Urban Sketches

Author: Bret Harte


Soon after I moved into Happy Valley I was struck with the remarkable infelicity of its title. Generous as Californians are in the use of adjectives, this passed into the domain of irony. But I was inclined to think it sincere,—the production of a weak but gushing mind, just as the feminine nomenclature of streets in the vicinity was evidently bestowed by one in habitual communion with "Friendship’s Gifts" and "Affection’s Offerings."

Our house on Laura Matilda Street looked somewhat like a toy Swiss Cottage,—a style of architecture so prevalent, that in walking down the block it was quite difficult to resist an impression of fresh glue and pine shavings. The few shade-trees might have belonged originally to those oval Christmas boxes which contain toy villages; and even the people who sat by the windows had a stiffness that made them appear surprisingly unreal and artificial. A little dog belonging to a neighbor was known to the members of my household by the name of "Glass," from the general suggestion he gave of having been spun of that article. Perhaps I have somewhat exaggerated these illustrations of the dapper nicety of our neighborhood,—a neatness and conciseness which I think have a general tendency to belittle, dwarf, and contract their objects. For we gradually fell into small ways and narrow ideas, and to some extent squared the round world outside to the correct angles of Laura Matilda Street.

One reason for this insincere quality may have been the fact that the very foundations of our neighborhood were artificial. Laura Matilda Street was "made ground." The land, not yet quite reclaimed, was continually struggling with its old enemy. We had not been long in our new home before we found an older tenant, not yet wholly divested of his rights, who sometimes showed himself in clammy perspiration on the basement walls, whose damp breath chilled our dining-room, and in the night struck a mortal chilliness through the house. There were no patent fastenings that could keep him out,—no writ of unlawful detainer that could eject him. In the winter his presence was quite palpable; he sapped the roots of the trees, he gurgled under the kitchen floor, he wrought an unwholesome greenness on the side of the veranda. In summer he became invisible, but still exercised a familiar influence over the locality. He planted little stitches in the small of the back, sought out old aches and weak joints, and sportively punched the tenants of the Swiss Cottage under the ribs. He inveigled little children to play with him, but his plays generally ended in scarlet fever, diphtheria, whooping-cough, and measles. He sometimes followed strong men about until they sickened suddenly and took to their beds. But he kept the green-plants in good order, and was very fond of verdure, bestowing it even upon lath and plaster and soulless stone. He was generally invisible, as I have said; but some time after I had moved, I saw him one morning from the hill stretching his gray wings over the valley, like some fabulous vampire, who had spent the night sucking the wholesome juices of the sleepers below, and was sluggish from the effects of his repast. It was then that I recognized him as Malaria, and knew his abode to be the dread Valley of the shadow of Miasma,—miscalled the Happy Valley!

On week days there was a pleasant melody of boiler-making from the foundries, and the gas works in the vicinity sometimes lent a mild perfume to the breeze. Our street was usually quiet, however,—a footfall being sufficient to draw the inhabitants to their front windows, and to oblige an incautious trespasser to run the gauntlet of batteries of blue and black eyes on either side of the way. A carriage passing through it communicated a singular thrill to the floors, and caused the china on the dining-table to rattle. Although we were comparatively free from the prevailing winds, wandering gusts sometimes got bewildered and strayed unconsciously into our street, and finding an unencumbered field, incontinently set up a shriek of joy, and went gleefully to work on the clotheslines and chimney-pots, and had a good time generally until they were quite exhausted. I have a very vivid picture in my memory of an organ-grinder who was at one time blown into the end of our street, and actually blown through it in spite of several ineffectual efforts to come to a stand before the different dwellings, but who was finally whirled out of the other extremity, still playing and vainly endeavoring to pursue his unhallowed calling. But these were noteworthy exceptions to the calm and even tenor of our life.

There was contiguity but not much sociability in our neighborhood. From my bedroom window I could plainly distinguish the peculiar kind of victuals spread on my neighbor’s dining-table; while, on the other hand, he obtained an equally uninterrupted view of the mysteries of my toilet. Still, that "low vice, curiosity," was regulated by certain laws, and a kind of rude chivalry invested our observation. A pretty girl, whose bedroom window was the cynosure of neighboring eyes, was once brought under the focus of an operaglass in the hands of one of our ingenuous youth; but this act met such prompt and universal condemnation, as an unmanly advantage, from the lips of married men and bachelors who didn’t own operaglasses, that it was never repeated.

With this brief sketch I conclude my record of the neighborhoods I have moved from. I have moved from many others since then, but they have generally presented features not dissimilar to the three I have endeavored to describe in these pages. I offer them as types containing the salient peculiarities of all. Let no inconsiderate reader rashly move on account of them. My experience has not been cheaply bought. From the nettle Change I have tried to pluck the flower Security. Draymen have grown rich at my expense. House-agents have known me and were glad, and landlords have risen up to meet me from afar. The force of habit impels me still to consult all the bills I see in the streets, nor can the war telegrams divert my first attention from the advertising columns of the daily papers. I repeat, let no man think I have disclosed the weaknesses of the neighborhood, nor rashly open that closet which contains the secret skeleton of his dwelling. My carpets have been altered to fit all sized odd-shaped apartments from parallelopiped to hexagons. Much of my furniture has been distributed among my former dwellings. These limbs have stretched upon uncarpeted floors, or have been let down suddenly from imperfectly established bedsteads. I have dined in the parlor and slept in the back kitchen. Yet the result of these sacrifices and trials may be briefly summed up in the statement that I am now on the eve of removal from my PRESENT NEIGHBORHOOD.


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Chicago: Bret Harte, "III.," Urban Sketches, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in Urban Sketches (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), Original Sources, accessed August 25, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBTIAKQJV4UTURR.

MLA: Harte, Bret. "III." Urban Sketches, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in Urban Sketches, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920, Original Sources. 25 Aug. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBTIAKQJV4UTURR.

Harvard: Harte, B, 'III.' in Urban Sketches, ed. . cited in 1920, Urban Sketches, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 August 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=QBTIAKQJV4UTURR.