History Lesson

Author John Bret-Harte paints a portrait of Tucson.

When John Bret-Harte sits down to talk about his volume of local history, Tucson: Portrait of a Desert Pueblo, the first thing he'll tell you is that you should be reading somebody else's book. Bret-Harte even praises C.L. Sonnichsen's Tucson: The Life and Times of an American City in the closing passage of his own volume: "It takes nothing away from this book to say that anyone writing about Tucson in the next half-century must first read and digest Sonnichsen's. It really is that good."

"It can and will be used by scholars for many years," Bret-Harte adds in person, "but it's also so damn much fun."

Bret-Harte's own book is hardly a trial. Designed for a popular audience rather than professional historians, his Portrait of a Desert Pueblo is a fast-moving, amply illustrated narrative of Tucson's first 225 years.

The second thing the author will tell you is that although the book has just been issued by the American Historical Press, it's not exactly new. It first appeared under a different imprint in 1980. "You could call this a late printing of the first edition," he says with a straight face, even though the final chapter, "Tucson at the Millennium," contains substantially new material.

Don't listen to what the man says about his own work. Bret-Harte is obviously far less interested in selling books than in selling Tucson, although he is hardly a smiley-faced booster. He writes about the city with affection, as if it were a great-aunt who had led a not entirely exemplary life, ultimately emerging as a fascinating character profoundly influential in her immediate family though not in the wider world.

Local histories have been few and far between; the only detailed studies of the city's past published since 1953 are Bret-Harte's and Sonnichsen's. Bret-Harte is not a Tucson native, although having lived here since 1960 he's about as close as we get around here. A great-grandson of the unhyphenated Western writer Bret Harte, he was born in Italy and raised in New England. He took degrees in history from Stanford and Yale, then obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona.

He taught part-time at the UA and Pima College and other schools, but he never became an entrenched member of the academy. Retired since the late 1990s, he spent the last couple of decades of his career as a newspaperman--his preferred term, rather than the pretentious "journalist." Early on, he dismayed editors at the Tucson Citizen by writing cop reports in a manner that was actually interesting rather than blandly journalistic. He eventually found himself working behind the scenes at the Arizona Daily Star, as an editor in the features department and later as a copy editor, where he described himself as a "harmless drudge."

He is an intellectual curmudgeon who never suffers fools gladly, but also enough of a progressive that he got his left ear pierced around the time he turned 60.

As a good journalist, in Tucson: Portrait of a Desert Pueblo Bret-Harte proves to be a precise stylist adept at telling interesting stories in the fewest words possible. As a good historian, he assumes his readers to be intelligent, and delivers not only names and dates but the context of the history he recounts. In two short paragraphs, for example, Bret-Harte sketches a lively, locket-sized portrait of Hugo Oconor, one of Tucson's founders, hitting the highlights of the Irish-born mercenary's colorful career and detailing exactly what he was up against on the North American frontier.

What might distress both journalists and historians is Bret-Harte's claim that "90 percent of the book came out of here," tapping his head.

Not that he just made it all up. "I'd lived 20 years in Tucson" when he started the book, he says, "and unconsciously I'd been storing up stories."

He learned plenty of stories from the many old-timers he'd talked to over the years, and as for archival work, it surely didn't hurt that his wife, Margaret, was the head librarian at the Arizona Historical Society. Even so, this project never made Bret-Harte feel trapped in dusty vaults.

"It was fun from start to finish," he says. "Nothing's quite as much fun as writing about your own community. You have a greater license to borrow from folklore, to borrow from oral traditions. Historians don't do that well, because they're faulted for it, and yet these are the things that add color, that add life, that add importance to unimportant things."

One key to Tucson's charm for Bret-Harte is that this burg, unlike such other Southwestern cities as Los Angeles and Phoenix, has never suffered delusions of grandeur. "When we do begin to become self-important," he says, "we have the grace to remind ourselves that we're not that big, we're not that powerful. Unless you worship at the shrine of Los Angeles, you have to admit that all that is modern is not necessarily good. The less like Los Angeles you are in terms of sprawl, in terms of ghettos, in terms of racial tension, in terms of bad air and anything else you care to name, the better off you are."

You almost get the feeling that the last instance of local "progress" that Bret-Harte whole-heartedly endorses was the coming of the railroad in 1880. "That brought the rest of the country to Tucson, and everything changed as a result of it, from food and furnishings to architecture," he says.

If he could conduct historical field research, Bret-Harte would hop into a time machine and travel back to the period just before and after the railroad's arrival, going back as far as the 1854 Gadsden Purchase.

"That was the first close contact between Anglos and Hispanics here," he says. "It was a period when the Anglo womenfolk stayed away from the Southwest, and the pattern emerged of Anglo men marrying Hispanic women, which created a depth of understanding of cultures in Tucson, which Phoenix never had. This was a time when the town grew to be a city, when this community really began to form itself, most fully after the Civil War."

This relates to Bret-Harte's one serious regret about his book. "Part of the genius of Tucson is that our minorities have always gotten along pretty well," he says. "This community has an ethos of mutual toleration and mutual respect, and I wish I'd been able to do more with that."

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