Plain Language from Truthful James
"PLAIN LANGUAGE FROM TRUTHFUL JAMES"
By any objective measure—the frequency with which it was reprinted, the number of parodies it inspired, the times it was quoted or set to music—Bret Harte's (1836–1902) "Plain Language from Truthful James," more commonly known as "The Heathen Chinee," was one of the most popular poems ever published. It was as nearly an overnight sensation as was possible in the days when San Francisco was four or five days distant from New York via transcontinental railroad. Within days of its original appearance in the September 1870 issue of the Overland Monthly, the poem had been reprinted in dozens of newspapers and magazines across the country, including the New York Evening Post, New York Tribune, Louisville Courier-Journal, Washington Star, Albany Journal, Boston Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, and Saturday Evening Post (twice). More than his celebrated stories "The Luck of Roaring Camp" or "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," which had appeared earlier in the Overland Monthly without signature, "Plain Language from Truthful James" made Bret Harte a household name in the East.
At first glance, the meaning of the dramatic monologue seems transparent. For "ways that are dark" and "tricks that are vain, / The heathen Chinee is peculiar" (ll. 3–5), the speaker Truthful James avers. The "pensive" (l. 11) Chinese laundryman Ah Sin seems an easy mark to James and his friend Bill Nye, Irish cardsharps who stack a deck of cards against him, especially when the laundryman protests he "did not understand" the rules of euchre: "But he smiled as he sat by the table, / With the smile that was childlike and bland" (ll. 22–24). Ah Sin turns the tables on the Irishmen and beats them at their own game, however, by concealing cards in his sleeves and marking them with wax. When Nye realizes the deception,
. . . he rose with a sigh,
And said, "Can this be?
We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,"
And he went for that heathen Chinee.
While Bill Nye metes out punishment to Ah Sin for trumping him, the poem omits any description of overt violence.
To judge from all extant evidence, Harte clearly intended the poem to satirize anti-Chinese prejudices pervasive in northern California among Irish day laborers, with whom Chinese immigrants were competing for jobs. As early as April 1863, Harte wrote in a San Francisco literary paper, the Golden Era, that the Chinese are "generally honest, faithful, simple, and painstaking," and he blamed the campaign to restrict Chinese immigration on "the conscious hate and fear with which inferiority always regards the possibility of even-handed justice" (p. 4). In a piece for the Springfield Republican published in March 1867, Harte noted that the "quick-witted, patient, obedient and faithful" Chinese were "gradually deposing the Irish from their old, recognized positions in the ranks of labor," and he predicted that the Chinese would "eventually supplant" the Irish in menial occupations (p. 1). "Plain Language from Truthful James" satirizes class resentment at precisely this point: the economic threat the Chinese posed to the Irish underclass in California. To the end of his life, Harte insisted that he had written the poem "with a satirical political purpose" (Dam, p. 43).
Harte's intent, of course, has no necessary correlation to the cultural work the poem actually performed. In fact, "Plain Language from Truthful James" was read by many a xenophobic reader as satire not of the Irish cardsharps but of Ah Sin and the socalled Yellow Peril. Whether or not Truthful James spoke plainly, Harte's language was easy to misconstrue. On the surface, the poem represents Ah Sin in stereotypical terms; only when read ironically does the poem resist or subvert the stereotype of the "inscrutable Oriental." The predominantly white middle-class readers of the Overland, the Saturday Evening Post, and the papers that reprinted the poem identified not with the "heathen" Ah Sin but with his presumed racial superior, Bill Nye, the ostensible victim of his trickery.
(MIS)APPROPRIATIONS OF THE POEM
Put another way, "Plain Language from Truthful James" was transformed into a culture text that was appropriated for a variety of purposes, few of them intended by the poet. During its first months in print, the poem was parodied dozens of times—for example, to satirize flirtatious women ("Plain Language from Truthful Jane"), the presidential ambitions of Horace Greeley ("The Heathen Greelee"), the Treaty of Washington ("Plain Language from Truthful Bull" and "Plain Language to Untruthful Bull"), and cheating at British colleges ("The Heathen Passee"). A number of contemporary reprintings included illustrations that pandered to racist sentiment. Before the end of 1870 the Western News Company of Chicago issued a pirated edition illustrated by Joseph Hull that sold thousands of copies. Though for the most part unremarkable, at least two of Hull's drawings depicted explicit violence against Ah Sin. The reading of the poem they represent is not only literal—without any sense of irony or ambiguity—but it also revises Harte's text, filling its gaps and silences with scenes of overt brutality. Bill Nye targets Ah Sin's queue, an ornament of honor and male pride; that is, Nye not only pummels Ah Sin, he figuratively emasculates him. The implications were plain. Before long the phrase "Ah Sin" had become a racial slur for Asians. The poem was even recited on the floor of the U.S. Congress in January 1871 by a foe of Chinese immigration.
All of which may begin to explain Harte's repudiation of the poem. As early as April 1871, in a letter enclosing a manuscript copy of the poem transcribed at the request of his friend and publisher James T. Fields, Harte lamented "all this 'damnable iteration' and inordinate quotation" which "have divested it of all meaning to me, and make me loathe it so that I can not even copy it legibly" (Selected Letters, p. 52). Harte used to conclude his lecture, "The Argonauts of '49," which he delivered over a hundred and fifty times between 1872 and 1875, by protesting the caricature of "what you [in the audience] call the heathen Chinee" and enumerating what he considered to be some outstanding characteristics of the Chinese: "Quiet, calm, almost philosophic, but never obtrusive or aggressive, he never flaunts his three thousand years [of civilization] in the face of the men of today. . . . He accepted a menial position with dignity and self-respect. He washed for the whole community, and made cleanliness a virtue" ("Bret Harte at Steinway Hall," p. 5). His friend and biographer T. Edgar Pemberton recalled after Harte's death in 1902 how "in quite recent years" Harte, "while reading his morning papers," made "half humorous, half earnest protest against" the way the poem was cited in the press (p. 110).
Despite repeated disavowals, however, Harte was willing and even eager to capitalize on the poem's popularity. Soon after he agreed to write exclusively for the Boston firm of Fields, Osgood, and Company, his new publishers prepared their own illustrated edition of the poem. In March 1871, in the same letter in which he agreed to contract terms, Harte wrote James R. Osgood that he had given the artist Sol Eytinge "several ideas about the 'Heathen Chinee' and his Pagan brother—the California miner" (Selected Letters, p. 53). Eytinge's eight drawings, which first accompanied a reprinting of the poem in Every Saturday on 29 April, proved so popular that the number soon sold out. Fields, Osgood, and Company issued a chapbook of the poem later that year priced at a quarter and featuring Eytinge's sketches with a note that they had been approved by Harte, making it "the only illustrated edition of the poem published with the author's sanction" (Harte, Heathen Chinee, p. 6). While Eytinge's drawings are aesthetically superior to Hull's, they interpret the poem in much the same way: Bill Nye and Truthful James are more vulgar figures, and the violence against Ah Sin is less blatant, but the sketches do not dispute the anti-Chinese reading the poem had been given in the press and by all other illustrators.
LATER (MIS)READINGS OF THE POEM
However much Harte criticized the poem privately, he willingly accommodated the demands of the literary market in hopes of turning a profit. In the mid-1870s, with his career in decline, he scripted a play entitled Two Men of Sandy Bar that featured a Chinese laundryman reminiscent of Ah Sin. Played by a white actor, the character amused both audiences and critics during the four-week run of the play in New York in the summer of 1876. Mark Twain (1835–1910) later reminisced that Harte once "wrote a play with a perfectly delightful Chinaman in it—a play which would have succeeded if anyone else had written it" (p. 275). To capitalize on the popularity of the character, Harte proposed in the fall of 1876 that the two of them write a play together under the working title "The Heathen Chinee" and "divide the swag." The result was the most disastrous collaboration in the history of American letters. Ah Sin ran on Broadway and in the provinces for several months, but the production was a financial and critical flop, and in the end the collaboration effectively ended Harte and Twain's friendship.
In the end, too, the foes of Chinese immigration carried the day. As the result of congressional ratification of a treaty with China, the number of new immigrants declined from a high of nearly forty thousand in 1882 to ten—not ten thousand, but ten—only five years later. This policy was formally enacted into law by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892, four years before the U.S. Supreme Court sanctioned the "separate but equal" doctrine of racial apartheid in Plessy v. Ferguson. Not surprisingly, given its earlier history of appropriation by race-baiters, Harte's poem enjoyed a burst of new popularity around the turn of the century. Allen Thurman, the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1888, recited it during the campaign to prove his opposition to Chinese immigration; and the artist E. W. Kemble, best known for illustrating the first edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), pandered to anti-Chinese prejudices in illustrating "Plain Language" for Mark Twain's Library of Humor, issued the same year. More than the illustrations printed in the 1870s, Kemble's most memorable sketch depicts exaggerated and graphic violence against the Chinese as Bill Nye—holding an unholstered pistol nowhere mentioned in the poem—flings Ah Sin into the air by his queue. The poem was reprinted in at least eight other anthologies between 1887 and Harte's death in 1902. The frequency with which Harte's poem was appropriated by other writers also spiked around the turn of the twentieth century. Frank Norris planned to publish a volume of short stories in 1897 under the title Ways That Are Dark, for example, and the California journalist Adeline Knapp endorsed the racist reading of "Plain Language" in a crude "Yellow Peril" tale, also titled "The Ways That Are Dark," printed in the San Francisco Sunday Call in August 1895.
The anti-Chinese reading of Harte's poem has remained essentially fixed in American culture since its first publication. While it may seem at first glance little more than a quaint relic to bad taste, the poem was construed throughout the final decades of the nineteenth century to favor limits on Chinese immigration. However well intentioned the poem may have been, the comic stereotype appropriated from "Plain Language from Truthful James" has historically—and most unfortunately—been invoked to justify racial discrimination.
Harte, Bret. "Bohemian Papers/John Chinaman." Golden Era, 5 April 1863, p. 4.
Harte, Bret. "From California." Springfield Republican, 30 March 1867, p. 1.
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