Thursday, December 24, 2009

Satire Gone Awry

By the 1860s, much of the American public was seized by “Yellow Peril,” the fear that Chinese immigration was overtaking the West and threatening American jobs among white laborers. This fear was particularly pronounced in 1869 when a commercial depression coincided with the completion of the transcontinental railroad. It is within this context that Bret Harte wrote his poem The Heathen Chinee, originally known as Plain Language from Truthful James. It was first published in September 1870in the Overland Monthly, a magazine edited by Harte. Harte wrote the poem as a satirical attack on the anti-Chinese sentiment that gripped the nation, particularly among Irish laborers who competed with Chinese immigrants for low wage work. The subtlety of Harte’s satire, however, was lost on a predominantly white readership that took it on face value and embraced it as expressing their own sentiments. Unfortunately, the release of the poem coincided with some of the worst anti-Chinese violence, culminating in the Chinese massacre of 1871 with the death of over twenty Chinese. The poem became an overnight success upon publication and was reprinted in periodicals throughout the country, making Harte one of the most recognized literary figures in American in 1870. Harte, who was never fond of the poem, commented that it was “the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote.”

In the poem, narrated by “Truthful” James, James and his fellow miner Bill Nye play a card game of Euchre against Ah Sin (I sin), a Chinese immigrant. Ah Sin, who pretends he does not know how to play, is up to his own tricks and manages to win every hand. When Nye realizes that this “Heathen Chinee” has out cheated him, he comments, “We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor.” This remark sums up the American working class’ frustration with Chinese immigrants.

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