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THE ARGONAUTS OF '49: CLASS, GENDER, AND PARTNERSHIP IN BRET HARTE'S WEST MATTHEW A . WATSON In "The Iliad of Sandy Bar," a tale Bret Harte published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1870, the "Amity Claim" bestows untold riches upon Matthew Scott and Henry York, two California mining partners.1These two men, "whose amiability and grave tact had earned for them the title of 'The Peacemakers,' in a community not greatly given to the passive virtues," were, Harte explains, "singularly devoted to each other" (87). A violent quarrel between the partners (presumably concerning their rival claims to the attentions of a young woman) disrupts the peace of the settlement, however, and the men embark on a mock epic battle against each other. When the former partners square off as opposing candidates in a local election, York denounces Scott's checkered past. Scott's reply suggests, however, that the personal bonds of partnership between Westerners reveal the heart of gold within even the most contemptible breast: "'There's naught, gentlemen,' said Scott, leaning forward on the railing,-'there's naught as that man hez said as Frederic Remington. HE RASTLED WITH MY FINGER. Photogravure, illu trating the 1896 edition of The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Tales, by Bret Harte. 3 1/ 2" x 5 1/ 8". 34 WESTERN AMERICAN LITERATURE SPRING 2005 isn't true.... But thar's one thing he didn't charge me with, and, maybe, he's forgotten. For three years, gentlemen, I was that man's pardner!-'" (94). True to this notion of the transformative western partnership, the men reunite after years of litigation and enmity, and Scott dies in the loving embrace and "the yearning clasp of his former partner" (97). In many of his most widely known tales that recall the years of the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), Harte uses this romantic myth of the nature of partnership as a representative figure for the affectionate and loyal bonds he imagined between miners. In "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868), "Tennessee's Partner" (1869), "Miggles" (1869), and "The Iliad of Sandy Bar" (1870), partnership creates an indissoluble, seemingly transcendent, union between westerners. Harte's notion of the western partnership has recently been read as an example of the "romantic vagueness" of his fiction, the same sort of clumsy or facile execution that relegates the dime novel to subliterary status (Hug 221). Critics have also often addressed Harte's sentimental attachment to partnership as a reflection of his interest in gender constructs : as a masculine convention of the Western genre, as a critique of female domesticity, and, most recently, as a representation of male homosexuality.2 But while gender certainly plays a central role in Harte's representations of partnership, a significant part of the missing framework in critical interpretations of Harte has been his concomitant interest in labor and class in the nineteenth-century West. Rather than simply constructing the West as an idyllic masculine space-for, in fact, his fictional partnerships crossed genders as often as not-Harte used western partnerships as a way to explore changing dynamics of economic relationships and gendered relationships through terms of contract, mutual support, and the bonds of labor. By recasting mutuality for individualism, Harte's fictions offered to recuperate republican ideologies of class mobility and collectivism while at the same moment offering an alternative to nineteenth-century gender inequities. Harte's work attempted to offset both the threat that the egalitarian mythology of mining would collapse into what nineteenth-century commentators often called "wage slavery" and the threat that marriage would become, in the arguments of many feminists, simply another form of slavery. MUTUALITY AND LABOR IN THE MINING CAMPS Dreams of what labor historians now call "mutualism" among laborers in the mines played a central role in the ways nineteenth-century Americans imagined the California Gold Rush. Most prospectors heading west, for instance, formed small partnerships before leaving home, MATTHEW A. WATSON 35 and their diaries and letters often extolled the virtues of collective labor, mutual support, and a collective republican "manliness." When George Webster and Linville Hall joined the Hartford Union Mining and Trading Company in 1848, they recorded in their collaborative journal...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 33-53
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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