Alta Live: Why Mark Twain Canceled Bret Harte

American writers Bret Harte and Mark Twain began their careers as reformers openly opposed to racial discrimination—and as good friends. By the time the two literary legends died, they were noted enemies who’d fallen out over the failure of their famously racist play.

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This Alta Live emerged from Joy Lanzendorfer’s article for Alta Journal examining how Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s friendship ended. The complicated falling-out began over “The Heathen Chinee,” a poem of Harte’s that gained massive popularity in the 19th century but was largely misunderstood. The work was originally intended as satire, Lanzendorfer told Alta Live, but when its audience took it literally, Harte didn’t protest. Following the poem’s success, Harte and Twain developed a play around the main character. The result, Ah Sin, was a flop, and working on it tore the pair apart.

Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies and a fifth-generation Californian, knew of the poem before reading Lanzendorfer’s piece but wasn’t aware of the Twain-Harte backstory. “Heathen Chinee,” he says, was “a powerful term that galvanized people around the Chinese Exclusion Act and justified mob violence against Chinese in the 19th century. It’s sort of amazing how that term really encapsulated people’s fears and hatred toward Asian people.” Jeung then drew a comparison to how politicians promoted the phrase “Chinese virus” during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and incited a surge in racist violence against Asian Americans.

Much of this Alta Live discussion centered on what place a play like Ah Sin, written by two celebrated American authors, should have in contemporary culture. According to Jeung, the existence of the play is a defense of the importance of continuing the study of problematic works: “We have to include it. We should read about it but then take a critical look at it, understand the context in which it was written, and then if students are at the developmental stage to be able to criticize it and not take it at face value, then they should be able to analyze it.” And Jeung isn’t interested in canceling Bret Harte or removing his name from history. “I don’t really appreciate the canceling approach,” he said. “I think we should be able to critically analyze, hold people to account, and amplify those who we think are more noteworthy and deserving.”

Check out these links to some of the topics Jeung, Lanzendorfer, and Spotswood brought up this week.

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