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The Chinese in Bret Harte's Overland: A Context for Truthful James

From: American Literary Realism
Volume 43, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 74-82 | 10.1353/alr.2010.0008

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Which I wish to remark—
          And my language is plain—
          That for ways that are dark
          And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar.
          Which the same I would rise to explain.

When these lines by Bret Harte appeared in the San Francisco Overland Monthly in September 1870 under the title "Plain Language from Truthful James," they were not the first statement of the magazine on the Chinese in California. For the first two years of its existence, the Overland displayed at least as much interest in Chinese culture as in any other single subject, if we can judge from the quantity of articles devoted to the topic. In the magazine's first twenty-four numbers, under the editorial guidance of Harte himself, fifteen substantial articles were published on the language, folkways, and industries of the Chinese or on political questions concerning their presence in California. By the time that Harte's "Plain Language" appeared in volume five, the magazine and its contributors seem to have exhausted what they had to say about the Chinese, offering no new articles in that volume. Lacking the context of such articles, new readers of the Overland nonetheless would have found a few cues directing them to a satiric reading of the poem; with the help of the earlier articles, established readers could hardly have missed Harte's intended tone.

In "Plain Language from Truthful James," two miners hope to cheat the Chinese character Ah Sin in a card game, only to find that he turns the tables and bests them both by holding spare cards of his own inside capacious sleeves. Nearly everyone who comments on the poem has something to say about its widespread cultural influence; despite Harte's relative sympathy with the Chinese, the poem's characters and language helped Americans argue in favor of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As the poem took on a life of its own, the prejudiced, cheating, and violent Bill Nye became a symbol of decent working men—"the 'hard-working' 'Bill Nyes' of the Pacific Coast," according to one eastern periodical—and the ungrammatical and biased statements of narrator Truthful James were accepted as truthful characterizations of the Chinese. Illustrated editions of the poem issued shortly after its first appearance in the Overland exaggerated Bill Nye's violence against Ah Sin and encouraged readers to view the Chinese character, as Truthful James did, as "dark" and "peculiar." The literal or anti-Chinese interpretation of the poem was not a reading encouraged by the Overland itself.

In its coverage of Chinese topics during Bret Harte's term as editor, the Overland provides an illustration of the way periodicals can influence textual meaning. As Nancy Glazener has observed, "Different periodicals invite different ways of being read. Through page layouts, announcements and advertisements, illustrations and typography, addresses to readers, and a variety of other signals, a periodical provokes certain kinds of attention and creates certain interpellating identifications for its readers." By September 1870, when Harte's poem appeared, the Overland Monthly had declared itself on the employers' side of local debates about the competitive pressure of Chinese men on California wages—welcoming Chinese labor. The magazine had also established a selectively sympathetic tone toward Chinese culture, a habit of reticence and skepticism with respect to dialect writing, and a voice of gentility quite at odds with the voice of "Truthful" James. Harte's own distaste for western racial prejudice has long been clear to scholars. By examining related contents of the Overland and the biographies of significant contributors, we find strong evidence that the magazine itself "invited"—in Glazener's language—a reading of "Plain Language from Truthful James" consistent with the author's satiric intentions.

For those who happened to pick up the Overland Monthly for the first time in September 1870, "Plain Language from Truthful James" would have seemed an anomaly in a magazine whose predominant tone was genteel, whose diction was polished, and whose perspective was cosmopolitan and liberal. The first-person vernacular speaker of Harte's poem, a miner, understands the Chinese card-player Ah Sin only in stereotypes; James accepts his friend Bill Nye's habit of cheating...

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