Mark Twain first hit it big as a writer in California. In an Angel’s Camp tavern in 1864, he overheard the tale that would become his breakthrough short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” To some extent, Twain credited his shift from hack reporter to mature writer to his mentor, Bret Harte. Though Harte was a year younger than Twain, he was the more established of the two and would soon produce popular stories like “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Twain said that Harte changed him “from an awkward utterer of coarse grotesquenesses to a writer of paragraphs and chapters that have found a certain favor in the eyes of even some of the very decentest people in the land.”

By the 1870s, both men were on the East Coast, and Harte was struggling financially, his life in shambles, his work no longer popular. When he was offered a position as United States consul to Germany, Twain—by then a famous author—wrote a letter protesting the post in no uncertain terms. “Harte is a liar, a thief, a swindler, a snob, a sot, a sponge, a coward,” he ranted. “He is brim full of treachery, and he conceals his Jewish birth…as if he considered it a disgrace…. To send this nasty creature to puke upon the American name in a foreign land is too much.”

The explosion of their friendship led to a feud lasting more than 30 years. What happened between these writers is hard to pinpoint, since Twain embellished the truth and Harte rarely spoke about the break. But one thing is clear: it happened while they were collaborating on a project based on Harte’s poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” or, as it came to be called, “The Heathen Chinee.” Written as a satire of racism, the poem was used by bigots to promote anti-Chinese legislation—much to Harte’s dismay. Despite this, Harte and Twain later decided to combine their star power and write a play centering the Chinese character in the poem. It would be called Ah Sin.

When Twain and Harte met in 1864 in San Francisco, they had a lot in common. They both wrote humorous fiction, worked in journalism, and thirsted for fame and recognition. They were also bad with finances. Harte spent all his money and had a habit of borrowing from friends. Later in life, Twain’s poor investments forced him to declare bankruptcy.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

The friendship formed during the height of Chinese exclusion. Between 1852 and 1880, the Chinese population in the United States jumped from 25,000 to 300,000. The reactionary anti-Chinese movement led to discriminatory laws designed to curtail immigration and strip Chinese Americans of their rights. It also led to widespread violence; untold numbers of Chinese people were driven from the communities that they’d helped found.

San Francisco was the epicenter of anti-Chinese racism. The city passed ordinances infringing on every part of Chinese life, affecting their businesses, living conditions, and even how they did their hair. (Queues, long braids that some Chinese men wore, were banned.) They were saddled with extra taxes, harassed by police, and endured continual assaults and attacks.

Both Harte and Twain spoke out against the poor treatment of the Chinese. Twain protested unfair laws, like the ones prohibiting Chinese people from testifying in court, and satirized U.S. racist attitudes and police complicity. In Roughing It, published in 1872, he points out that Chinese immigrants he’s observed in California “can read, write and cipher with easy facility—pity but all our petted voters could.” He describes them as frugal and industrious, raising “surprising crops of vegetables on a sand pile” and using what others waste.

[A Chinese man] gathers up all the old oyster and sardine cans that white people throw away, and procures marketable tin and solder from them by melting.… In California he gets a living out of old mining claims that white men have abandoned…and then the officers come down on him once a month with an exorbitant swindle [called the] “foreign” mining tax.

At times, however, Twain stereotyped Chinese people. Elsewhere in Roughing It, he goes to San Francisco’s Chinatown and witnesses “yellow, long-tailed vagabonds” smoking opium and a “soggy creature” dreaming of feasting “on succulent rats and birds’-nests in Paradise.” He’s repulsed by the food, suspecting that a sausage contains the “corpse of a mouse.” Twain viewed the Chinese as “others,” foreigners not exactly his equal. Sometimes his behavior reflected this attitude, especially when he used Chinese people as fodder for amusement. While living on California Street, Twain and a friend would throw beer bottles onto the tin roofs of their Chinese neighbors, then hide and giggle when they came out to investigate the racket. When their neighbors went back inside, Twain would throw another bottle.

Harte, on the other hand, started his career by denouncing racial atrocities. Originally from New York, the grandson of an Orthodox Jewish immigrant, Harte was, by age 24, living in Arcata and working as assistant editor at the Northern Californian. He happened to be in charge of the newspaper in 1860 when white settlers attacked the Wiyot Tribe on an island in Humboldt Bay. The number of victims is unclear, but between 60 and 200 people were killed. With palpable outrage, Harte described the genocide in his article “Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians: Women and Children Butchered”:

Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes. When the bodies were landed at Union, a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.

Taking on an enraged mob had consequences. Harte was fired and run out of town, but he continued to write about racial issues. In San Francisco, he penned abolitionist verses and wrote about “dispossessed Spanish Californians and Mexican Indians,” according to Margaret Duckett’s book Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Like Twain, he condemned anti-Asian xenophobia but sometimes stereotyped Chinese people. This was especially the case in his fiction, where his characters said things like “Me choppee wood, me no fightee.”

mark twain
Steve Carroll

At first, Harte helped Twain. When Twain was fired from a newspaper for lazy reporting, Harte gave him a regular gig writing for the Californian, where he was the editor. Harte also reprinted the jumping-frog story and suggested edits for Twain’s 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad, which Twain carefully followed. They admired each other’s work. After the frog story took off, Twain wrote, “Though I am generally placed at the head of my breed of scribblers in this part of the country, the place properly belongs to Bret Harte.” In a review, Harte wrote of Twain, “I think I recognize a new star rising in this western horizon.”

They also shared what they were paid for their writing, discussing advances and fees and giving each other business advice. While this was useful, it created a rivalry, especially for Twain. When Harte signed a $10,000 contract with the Atlantic Monthly, Twain sold his interest in the publication Buffalo Express, “motivated by his passionate determination to get ahead of Bret Harte,” writes Duckett. In discussing his new book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Twain told a friend, “Bret Harte has sold his novel (same size as mine, I should say) to Scribner’s Monthly for $6,500.” Later, he mentioned dramatizing Tom Sawyer for the amount Harte had received.

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By 1870, both writers were experiencing fame for the first time. Twain was enjoying the success of “Jumping Frog” and The Innocents Abroad. Harte published short stories like “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and then experienced sudden, intense notoriety with “The Heathen Chinee.” No one was more surprised by this than Harte. Twain later said that Harte had written the poem for “his own amusement,” then “threw it aside but being one day suddenly called upon for copy he sent [it] in.”

It’s hard, now, to understand Harte’s intention with the poem. Bill Nye, an Irish man, plays cards with a Chinese man named Ah Sin, whose smile is “pensive and childlike.” Bill cheats by hiding cards up his sleeve, only to lose to Ah Sin, who, it’s discovered, is also cheating. “We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,” Bill Nye shouts, and he attacks Ah Sin.

If I squint, I can see an interpretation about labor issues here—the Chinese are playing the same game as everyone else, thus Bill Nye is a hypocrite for attacking Ah Sin for doing what he himself was doing. But most people took the poem the opposite way, seeing Ah Sin as the more deceitful of the two—pretending to be innocent when he’s not, stuffing more cards up his sleeve, and generally being a “heathen” with “ways that are dark.” Any subtlety is overshadowed by Bill Nye’s assault of Ah Sin.

“The idea that the poem ends with comic violence is seen as somehow funny or humorous,” Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian American studies at the University of Minnesota, tells me. “It’s portrayed as a kind of rough-and-ready part of western life. The part that’s frightening in a modern context, of course, is that it wasn’t uncommon to have anti-Chinese violence. Men in particular were driven out of town. They were lynched. Terrible things happened to them.”

“The Heathen Chinee” struck a nerve. As Twain put it, the poem “created an explosion of delight whose reverberations reached the last confines of Christendom.” It was reprinted, parodied, illustrated, set to music, recited in public, and immortalized on pottery. It wasn’t just that it was popular, though—it had real-world consequences. The anti-Chinese movement pounced on the poem and used it in campaigns and slogans. Racist politician Eugene Casserly sent Harte a letter thanking him for his support. The poem was mentioned on the floor of Congress in debates about banning immigration. Because of it, the word heathen became associated with Chinese people.

Harte was appalled. He later said that “The Heathen Chinee” was “the worst poem I ever wrote, possibly the worst poem anyone ever wrote.” Yet he benefited from the fame it brought him. Like Twain, he launched a lecture tour and was showered with lucrative opportunities. The East Coast literati opened their chilly arms and invited him into their midst. Harte’s newfound acclaim outstripped even Twain’s rise to glory, much to the latter’s consternation.

But while Twain was just starting to taste renown, Harte’s career was peaking. He would never again achieve high levels of success. Money slipped through his fingers, and he drank heavily. These changes took a toll on his life—and his friendship with Twain.

In 1876, Twain saw a play that Harte had written called Two Men of Sandy Bar. It was adapted from a humorous story inspired by a brief falling-out between Harte and Twain in 1870. In it, two friends feud for decades over an argument about baking soda.

The play was a flop. However, an actor named Charles Parsloe stood out for his performance of a Chinese character, Hop Sing. This act of yellow face apparently stole the show. Twain was delighted. “The play would have succeeded if anyone else [but Harte] had written it,” he later said.

Not long afterward, Harte proposed that they collaborate on a play based on “The Heathen Chinee.” Parsloe would star, revising his yellow-face performance. The goal was to make money. Like writing for the movies today, a successful play could yield much more for an author than publishing a novel. Whatever qualms Harte may have had about his poem, it was still the most famous thing he’d written. The play would cash in on its popularity, and it would be written by two well-known humorists. From a financial standpoint, it looked like a sure thing, and Twain rarely turned down an investment opportunity. “Harte…asked me to help him write a play and divide the swag,” he wrote to a friend soon after, “and I agreed.”

It’s mind-boggling that two writers with histories of condemning racial injustice could choose to perpetuate the harmful messages of “The Heathen Chinee” by turning it into a play. In addition to wanting to make money, Twain was focused on the humor he found in the character—to him, Ah Sin was hilarious. And by then, Harte was desperate. According to Ron Powers’s biography Mark Twain: A Life, Harte “was badly in debt (he owed [Twain] money), often drunk in public, delinquent at scheduled appearances…[and] groping for the creative magic that had once seemed his birthright.” With a wife and children to support, Harte was nearly destitute. The play must have seemed like a way out of his troubles.

That fall, he showed up at Twain’s mansion in Connecticut, and the two of them went to work in the third-floor billiard room. Harte did most of the writing, while Twain played pool and supplied dialogue. Tensions were high. Twain wrote that he was “in a smouldering [sic] rage…over the precious days and weeks of time which Bret Harte was losing for me.”

Despite this, they finished Ah Sin and were pleased enough to discuss collaborating on another play. Then the break in the friendship happened—and it was over money.

Though Harte owed Twain $750, he asked for another loan to get him through until the play took off. Perhaps he remembered the early days of their friendship, when he was the one helping Twain. Instead, Twain offered Harte an insultingly low fee of $25 a week plus board to collaborate on a new play. In a letter, Harte explained that he was still a highly paid writer and could make much more “at my desk.” He accused Twain of exploiting his poverty, saying, “I think I’ll struggle on here on $100 per week—and not write any more plays with you.” He added that Twain’s business advice regarding his novel Gabriel Conroy had cost him thousands, so he wouldn’t pay back the money he’d borrowed, either.

On the back of the letter, Twain wrote, “I have read two pages of this ineffable idiotcy [sic]—it is all I can stand of it.”

In retaliation, Twain set out to remove Harte from Ah Sin in all but name. He roped Parsloe into his plans, and they froze Harte out, making him unwelcome at rehearsals. Even his comped tickets for friends were later refused at the box office. Twain rewrote the play despite Harte’s request to be involved, “to allow me some understanding of the characters I have created.” Instead, Twain, hell-bent on revenge, excised Harte’s contributions and removed whatever nuance may have existed in Ah Sin, changing him into a comic buffoon. As a result, the surviving version of the play, replete with racist tropes and stereotypes, is all Twain.

Not surprisingly, when Ah Sin opened on Broadway, Harte didn’t attend. Twain, wearing a white linen suit, introduced the play with a series of jokes. Tellingly, he said that Parsloe’s performance was as “good and natural and consistent” as any Chinese person in San Francisco. He added that Chinese immigrants were “going to become a frequent spectacle all over America by and by, and a difficult political problem, too.” After this, it was on with the show.

Ah Sin isn’t a good play. For one thing, it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be: it’s a murder mystery, melodrama, and comedy rolled into one. On top of that, Ah Sin is a racist caricature. Described as having a long braid, or “tail,” he gambols about the stage, stealing things and hiding them in his sleeves while he “jabbers frantically in Chinese.” He talks like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars (“Me no stealee him,—cup he lay around loose, me pickee him up—me good Chinaman”). He’s sometimes more clever than the white characters, and the play ends with everyone shouting “Hurrah for Ah Sin!,” but he’s also the butt of the humor, the perpetual foreigner, a clown.

Twain found the character “killingly funny.” The reviews, while mixed, show that some in the audience believed Twain’s statement about Parsloe being “natural and consistent.” The New York Times called him a “typical” Chinese man, and the San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin snorted that Ah Sin was “a genuine Chinee-man, sans obliquity of eyes.” This is one of the dangers of yellow-face performance, the University of Minnesota’s Lee believes.

“It’s not the case that everyone saw the play and immediately jumped to the conclusion that all Chinese people are like that,” she says. “But I do think there’s an inherent danger in somebody’s performance becoming so well received that people say, ‘Oh, this is how I remember Chinese people to be.’ ”

In the end, the play closed without turning a profit.

bret harte
Steve Carroll

The feud should have ended there, but it didn’t. Twain, with the ferocity of a jilted lover, set out to destroy Harte’s reputation and livelihood. Even Twain’s wife, Livy, urged him to let it go, writing, “Don’t say harsh things about Mr. Harte…. It is so much better that you be reticent about him…. Be careful my darling.” But Twain carried the grudge beyond Harte’s death, in 1902, to his own death, in 1910. It was one of many.

“Mark Twain lost more friends than he made,” says Gary Scharnhorst, a biographer of both Twain and Harte. “I could give you a long list of former friends from whom he became estranged and never reconciled. He was very good at hating.”

In 1877, when Twain heard that Harte might be offered a government consulate in—of all places—China, he intervened with President Rutherford B. Hayes to stop it. That June, he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells to convince his wife, Elinor, Hayes’s cousin, to tell the president that Harte “swindled grocers,” “defrauded innocents,” and “never pays a debt but by the squeezing of the law.” It worked—the position fell through. The next year, Harte was offered a post as consul to Germany, and Twain wrote to Howells again. In the same letter where he called Harte a liar, a sot, and a snob, he railed that the president had “ignored my testimony” and should have given him “a chance to prove what I said.” This time, Harte got the job.

Long after Harte moved to Europe, Twain still wasn’t done. In Australia in 1895, he ran Harte down to the press, calling his work shoddy and a sham: “He has no heart, except his name…. He is artificial.” These comments, two decades after the play, seemed out of nowhere. And in 1906, four years after Harte’s death, Twain again complained about Harte, in notes for his autobiography. Harte “was bad, distinctly bad; he had no feeling, and he had no conscience.” Twain told a fabricated account of writing Ah Sin, in which Harte—who Twain said owed him $3,000, not $750—insulted his house and his wife, and Twain, fed up, told him off in grand style.

By contrast, Harte’s public statements about Twain were mild. (“I always considered that we were friends until that trip of his to Australia,” he said.) However, he did write about Twain in two short stories. One seemed to apologize to Twain; the other lampooned him.

Whether or not Twain’s gossiping took a toll, Harte’s work would have fallen out of fashion. In his essay “The Heathen Chinee and American Technology,” Ronald Takaki writes, “For the rest of his life Harte struggled desperately to recapture his success…producing a prodigious amount of mediocre literature. [He] left behind a sad record of his obsession to rework the tailing of his literary materials and strike again the vein of success. ‘I grind out the old tunes on the old organ,’ he wrote…‘and gather up the coppers, but I never know whether my audience behind the window blinds are wishing me to move on or not.’ ”

While Twain went on to write about race more successfully in books like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harte continued to portray the Chinese poorly in fiction and poems. These ill-advised attempts reinforced stereotypes and did nothing to repair the damage caused by “The Heathen Chinee.” As Takaki puts it, “while he felt sorry for [Chinese immigrants, Harte] created in his writings negative images which helped to perpetuate the injustice and violence committed against them.” It’s a shocking trajectory for a man who in his early writings confronted racist violence.

It was long thought that the two never met again after the falling-
out over the play. However, an article in the St. Louis Republic from that time reveals that Harte and Twain met once more, at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1900. Now old men, they attended a reception for Henry Irving, the dashing actor who inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Twain gave a speech in which he described his experiences as a dramatist, which had the whole room laughing.

I tracked down the speech, wondering if Twain had referenced Ah Sin or insulted Harte, but what I found was more of a rueful admission. Twain joked that in his 30-year career, he’d written 415 dramas, but success in the theater had eluded him. There’s some truth in this—he did write plays, but none achieved the popularity he’d hoped for when he and Harte, ambitious rivals, wrote Ah Sin. A successful play “requires real ability,” Twain pointedly said to the room of creative men, including Harte. “And I have never had that felicity yet.”•

Joy Lanzendorfer’s first novel, Right Back Where We Started From, was published in 2021.