‘Tennessee’s Partner’ by Bret Harte

harte-bret-1869a

Tennessee’s Partner by Bret Harte, 1869

The magic trick:

Letting the reader first get to know Tennessee’s partner through a series of actions that only portray him in relation to Tennessee, before finally providing a basic physical description of the man himself midway through the story

Tennessee’s partner is a man identified only in relation to someone else. The narrator tells us that in the second paragraph. Then he does one better – he shows us.

The reader meets Tennessee’s partner through a couple of key pieces of backstory. He leaves town and returns with a wife. He remains friends with Tennessee even after Tennessee leaves town for awhile with said wife.

It’s only eight paragraphs into the story – and after the plot has veered off to discuss Tennessee’s reputation and arrest – that we get an actual, physical description of Tennessee’s partner. By then, the reader has already formed definite opinions about this man based on how he has acted in relation to Tennessee. So, you see, the story has us considering him just the same as the town does. And that’s quite a trick on Harte’s part.

The selection:

Of their married felicity but little is known, perhaps for the reason that Tennessee, then living with his Partner, one day took occasion to say something to the bride on his own account, at which, it is said, she smiled not unkindly and chastely retreated– this time as far as Marysville, where Tennessee followed her, and where they went to housekeeping without the aid of a justice of the peace. Tennessee’s Partner took the loss of his wife simply and seriously, as was his fashion. But to everybody’s surprise, when Tennessee one day returned from Marysville, without his Partner’s wife–she having smiled and retreated with somebody else– Tennessee’s Partner was the first man to shake his hand and greet him with affection. The boys who had gathered in the canyon to see the shooting were naturally indignant. Their indignation might have found vent in sarcasm but for a certain look in Tennessee’s Partner’s eye that indicated a lack of humorous appreciation. In fact, he was a grave man, with a steady application to practical detail, which was unpleasant in a difficulty.

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