The Heathen Chinee

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Bret Harte
"Heathen Chinee" pitcher

"The Heathen Chinee", originally published as "Plain Language from Truthful James",[1] is a narrative poem by American writer Bret Harte. It was published for the first time in September 1870 in Overland Monthly.[2][3][4] It was written as a parody of Algernon Charles Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon (1865),[3] and satirized anti-Chinese sentiment in northern California.

Harte, who is known to have repeatedly opposed racial discrimination since as early as 1863,[5] intended the poem to be a satire of the prevalent prejudice among Irish laborers in northern California against the Chinese immigrants competing for the same work. However, the predominantly white middle-class readership of the Overland and the periodicals that reprinted it—including the New York Evening Post, Prairie Farmer, New York Tribune, Boston Evening Transcript, Providence Journal, Hartford Courant, and Saturday Evening Post (published twice)[6]—interpreted and embraced the poem as mocking the Chinese. Following the September 1870 publication, the poem was included in a book by Harte titled Poems, released in January 1871.[7] Several periodicals and books would republish the poem with illustrations.[3]

"The Heathen Chinee", as the poem was most often called, was recited in public among opponents to Chinese immigration, and Eugene Casserly, a Senator from California who was "vehemently opposed to the admission of Chinese labour", apparently thanked Harte in writing for supporting his cause. Harte's poem shaped the popular American conception of the Chinese more than any other writing at the time,[5] and made him the most popular literary figure in America in 1870.[3]

When asked about it in later years, Harte called the poem "trash", and "the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote."[5]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ Harte, Francis Bret. "Plain Language from Truthful James". Yale Book of American Verse (Lounsbury, Thomas R., ed.). Yale University Press, 1912;, 1999. URL accessed 2008-01-05.
  2. ^ Harte, F. Bret. "Plain Language from Truthful James". Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935). San Francisco: September 1870. Volume 5, Issue 3, p 287.
  3. ^ a b c d Railton, Stephen. Harte: "The Heathen Chinee". West Meets East: Depicting the Chinese, 1860–1873. University of Virginia. URL accessed 2006-12-12.
  4. ^ Henderson, Victoria. Mark Canada, editor. "Bret Harte, 1836–1902". All American: Literature, History, and Culture. University of North Carolina at Pembroke. URL accessed 2006-12-12.
  5. ^ a b c Scharnhorst, Gary. "Ways That Are Dark": Appropriations of Bret Harte's "Plain Language from Truthful James". Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 51, No. 3 (December 1996), pp. 377–399.
  6. ^ 10 Sep 1870, p 3; 11 Feb 1871, p 4.
  7. ^ "New Books". Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading (1866–1874). Boston: 7 Jan 1871. Vol. 2, Iss. 1; p 2.