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No Honor among Cheaters: Harte’s “Heathen Chinee”

In the 1973 film The Sting, the ultimate mark of Paul Newman and Robert Redford complains after being beaten in his own card game, “What was I supposed to do – call him for cheating better than me?” This character, Doyle Lonnegan, understood the irony of cheater being cheated. He would look to exact some vengeance, but his sense of self image required him to proceed in a circumspect manner. Not so with the narrator of Bret Harte’s notorious poem, “Heathen Chinee.” This poem, presented by a voice calling himself Truthful James, recounts a card game between James, his friend Bill Nye, and the titular “heathen chinee,” an immigrant worker, Ah Sin.

Truthful James wastes no time establishing the thesis of his poem, declaring in the first stanza

That for ways that are dark
And for tricks that are vain,
The heathen Chinee is peculiar,

Of course, James shares this conclusion with the benefit of hindsight, having already experienced the previously mentioned card game. Earlier, he noted that Ah Sin’s smile was “pensive and childlike,” a fact that he’d mentioned several times to Bill Nye. What would cause James to mention this childlike quality to his friend? As we read on, we recognize that James and Nye believed they had found themselves the Chinese version of a rube, someone with whom they could gamble and beat. In Harte’s story “The Outcasts of Poker Flats,” the gambler remembers a time when he had cleaned out young Tom Simson, the “innocent” of Poker Flats. In that case, the gambler feels some remorse, returns the money, and admonishes the boy to gamble no more. One doesn’t get the sense that James and Nye will feel the same scruples once they have separated Ah Sin and his money.They have no problem sitting down to play a man who they believe doesn’t know the game of Euchre.

Lest we think the two men simply aim to beat a less capable opponent in a fair game, James accuses at least Nye of being a dishonest player:

Yet the cards they were stocked
In a way that I grieve,
And my feelings were shocked
At the state of Nye’s sleeve,
Which was stuffed full of aces and bowers,
And the same with intent to deceive.

According to James, it is the cheater Nye who attacks Ah Sin when the man wins too much. And then they find his sleeves stocked with all manner of cards. From then, both James and Nye feel confident in the justice of their actions. Nye, the cheat and manipulator, has no compunction about attacking the “Chinese cheap labor,” while James sees no impropriety in attacking the man’s character. In his eyes, those Chinese are shifty cheats, while his friend is a cagey competitor.

It is said that Harte distanced himself from this poem later in his career, despite the fact that it helped to establish his reputation as a first-rank man of letters in 1870. The disaffection probably came from the misunderstanding of readers. Where Harte sought to satirize specifically the Irish laborers in California and, more broadly, all who can easily see the faults in another group while missing their own, many took the poem at face value as a condemnation of the Chinese.

Although Harte did not allude to the Bible overtly in most of his works, certain Biblical themes seem to bubble just below the surface. Isaiah 64:6 and Romans 3:10 jump out immediately as do Jesus’ warning against hypocrisy in Matthew 23. Harte’s touch is too light and comical to call James and Nye whitewashed tombs, but the shoe seems to readily fit.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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