The celebration of the virtues of the social underclass in Bret Harte’s stories

Length: 1053 words

Bret Harte is a writer whose works are full of human empathy and insight. He is also exceptional in terms of attention to detail and gifted in coming up with beautiful turns of phrase. In the three short stories of the author chosen for this essay, we see ample examples of remarkable literary and humane touches. The force and achievement of Bret Harte’s works are best understood when considering the social milieu and literary norms of his time. In other words, Harte was one of the early American writers to project the lives of the underprivileged into mainstream literature. This essay will flesh out the thesis that in Harte’s stories, there is manifest celebration of the virtues of the social underclass. Where literature was previously the preserve of the privileged and addressed to the same privileged audience, Harte broke this trend, and courageously at that, and highlighted the depth, effervescence and humanity of those in the fringes of society.

Tennessee’s Partner is a great short story. At its core is the theme of friendship, if not unconditional love. Tennessee’s Partner (who was never referred by his actual name through the entire story) displays such an unconditional acceptance

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of his friend Tennessee that he soon withers and dies upon the latter’s execution. Even when his wife runs away with Tennessee, his partner doesn’t try to harm him. To the contrary, he welcomes him back home in all cordiality. This is all the more remarkable when one considers the livelihoods of these two characters. They are both petty criminals, often committing offenses against the law. It is natural to expect loose codes of friendship and loyalty among people who are considered criminals. Yet Tennessee’s Partner shows such dedication toward the wellbeing of his friend. In what is a brilliant symbolic touch, the very naming of the story as Tennessee’s Partner indicates the strength of unity of identity of these two loyal friends. The reference to an individual solely through his friend’s name is a statement of the strong intertwinement of their two identities.

Similarly, consistent with Harte’s reputation of being a brave writer who pushed the frontiers of social sensibility, there are sufficient hints at a homosexual relationship between the two lead characters. Perhaps fearing public outrage (as homosexuality was taboo during Harte’s era) the author might have only conveyed the intimate nature of their relationship via indirect literary means. Another way of looking at this is that Harte has deliberately made it ambiguous, not so much out of fear of public reprisal, but as an aesthetic literary device. The poignancy and emotional tone of the funereal speech delivered by Tennessee’s partner lends evidence to this point of view. Harte also proves in a way that even the social underclass can express moving sentiments and articulate noble emotions. The following eulogy of Tennessee’s partner illustrates these points:

“When a man has been running free all day, what’s the natural thing for him to do? Why, to come home. And if he ain’t in a condition to go home, what can his best friend do? Why, bring him home! And here’s Tennessee has been running free, and we brings him home from his wandering…It ain’t the first time that I’ve packed him on my back, as you see’d me now. It ain’t the first time that I brought him to this yer cabin when he couldn’t help himself; it ain’t the first time that I and ‘Jinny’ have waited for him on yon hill, and picked him up and so fetched him home, when he couldn’t speak, and didn’t know me. And now that it’s the last time, why, you see it’s sort of rough on his pardner…And now, gentlemen, the fun’s over; and my thanks, and Tennessee’s thanks, to you for your trouble.” (Tennessee’s Partner, p.5)

The Luck of Roaring Camp is another illustration of how Bret Harte’s celebrates the virtues of those living in society’s periphery. One of the early literary successes that catapulted Harte to national fame, this story is conceived on a broad canvas, with a wide assortment eccentric characters that inhabit Roaring Camp. The camp is inhabited by petty thieves and thugs of unstable temperament and unpredictable behavior. The only woman of the camp was a fallen one, who is rumored to be a tramp and the fact that she’s carrying a baby has completed the total tarnish of her image. Not only is the baby conceived outside of wedlock but even the paternity is unknown.

“Perhaps the less said of her the better. She was a coarse, and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman…Dissolute, abandoned, and irreclaimable, she was yet suffering martyrdom hard enough to bear even when veiled by sympathizing womanhood, but now terrible in her loneliness. The primal curse had come to her in that original isolation which must have made the punishment of the first transgression so dreadful.” (The Luck of Roaring Camp, p.1)

It is under these circumstances that the woman, who goes by the name of Cherokee Sal, goes into labor. The laboring wails of Cherokee Sal draws the attention of the entire camp. The Roaring Camp is a place where grown up people find abode for a short time before being sent to prison or relocating for further criminal activity. This accounts for why there is never any respectable woman inhabiting it. Hence, the prospect of a newborn baby into this loose assemblage of vagabonds suddenly confounds all of them.

“The assemblage numbered about a hundred men. One or two of these were actual fugitives from justice, some were criminal, and all were reckless. Physically, they exhibited no indication of their past lives and character. The greatest scamp had a Raphael face, with a profusion of blond hair; Oakhurst, a gambler, had the melancholy air and intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet…The term ‘roughs’ applied to them was a distinction rather than a definition. Perhaps in minor details of fingers, toes, ears, etc, the camp may have been deficient, but these slight omissions did not detract from their aggregate force…” (The Luck of Roaring Camp, p.1)

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