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 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: