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"Ways That Are Dark": Appropriations of Bret Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James"

Gary Scharnhorst
Nineteenth-Century Literature
Vol. 51, No. 3 (Dec., 1996), pp. 377-399
DOI: 10.2307/2934016
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2934016
Page Count: 23
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"Ways That Are Dark": Appropriations of Bret Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James"
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Abstract

One of the most popular poems ever published, "Plain Language from Truthful James" (1870) has usually been read not as a satire of the Irish, as Bret Harte intended, but of the Chinese, represented by Ah Sin. The text literally constructs a racial Other in stereotypical terms; only when read ironically does it subvert the stereotype. Harte meant to ridicule the anti-Chinese prejudices of the Irish underclass, with whom Chinese immigrants cmpeted for jobs in northern California. At the height of its popularity, however, the poem was adapted by the foes of Chinese immigration to support their cause. This tendency to (mis) appropriate the poem is apparent in various illustrated reprintings of it; in the play Ah Sin (1877), mostly written by Mark Twain; and in juvenile novels by Horatio Alger, Jr. By the 1890s Harte's authority was again invoked by the opponents of Chinese immigration, including the California journalist Adeline Knapp, and the anti-Chinese reading of the poem has remained essentially fixed in American culture since the turn of the century.

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