Walter Mencken 9:27 a.m., Feb. 27
- Community Blog
THE COHERENT PLOT OF GABRIEL CONROY (III)
Stylistically, Harte’s description of the Spanish Quarter in San Francisco displays archetypal terminology. The changing “grade” refers to the original hillside on which the dwellings of San Francisco were first erected in the Spanish era of Californian history. A “grade” can also be a sign of achievement or failure. This is an example of how Harte’s slight descriptions narrate history by allegory. The nostalgic attitude of the narrator when remarking on the Spanish colonial past of California Bret Harte romanticizes and preserves. However, he also decried the mission system in other writings concerning the enslavement of Native Americans by Spanish missionaries. As Cicil Robinson contends in Mexico and the Hispanic Southwest in American Literature, “Bret Harte took a decidedly unsentimental attitude toward the California missions, referring to them with an irreverence reminiscent of… mockery” (284). Yet there is reason to doubt Robinson’s unilateral assumption that Harte was “unsentimental.” Harte did publish a satiric poem in the Overland Monthly in 1869 entitled “Friar Pedro’s Ride.” It condemns the Spanish missions in California that enslaved large numbers of Native Americans as neophytes: “To prove to them that liberty was crime” (qtd. 285). Robinson’s example shows only that Harte did represent the dark side of the Spanish missions, but in Gabriel Conroy, Harte represents the Mission of San Antonio as an honorable institution. Consequently, Harte exemplifies a romanticized and nostalgic conjecture of time and place regarding hierarchical institutions of power. The fantasy of colonial Spanish California might be compared to other fantasies of California such as its lawlessness. The Mission of San Antonio is an important setting in Gabriel Conroy. It fulfills a need to romanticize the past of Spanish and Mexican California to complete Harte’s wide-canvassed survey of identities in his potentially “classic” regional epic. The Mission of San Antonio, embodying what appears to be an appeal to an exotic history, a previous identity claim, harnesses another historical role in the plot. The California missions, of which the Mission of San Antonio is a representative example, are, in fact, still important remnants of California’s identity. Arthur Poinsett’s assignment to the Mission of San Antonio as a representative of a reputable law firm places him in a setting that tests his character as a new Californian. Father Felipe, who guides Poinsett through the mission, upsets Robinson’s claim that Bret Harte “took a decidedly unsentimental attitude.” Father Felipe, Harte’s spokesperson for the missions in Gabriel Conroy, in fact, engages Poinsett in a conversation about virtue and morality, explaining “‘But what is this? You do not seem to have that interest in your profession that…’ Arthur laughed. ‘Why not? It is as good as any.’ ‘But to right the oppressed? To do justice to the unjustly accused, eh? To redress wrongs—ah, my son! that is noble’” (144). Poinsett is forced to reply to questions of virtue in human life, questions, as it so happens, which are directed at a former impostor. After all, Poinsett impregnated and marooned Grace Conroy. Poinsett answers Father Felipe’s questions about morality with Benjamin Franklin’s pithy apothegm, “Honesty is the best policy,” in lieu of a more ecclesiastical code of honor. Father Felipe responds meaningfully to disable Poinsett’s false confidence, revealing his wisdom through questions: “‘And these are your American ethics?’… ‘They are, and in conjunction with manifest destiny and the Star of Empire they have brought us here…’ Father Felipe looked at his friend in hopeless bewilderment. Arthur instantly changed and became respectful and Spanish” (144-5). The presence of women with considerable power in the novel comes in the forms of Doña Maria Sepulvida and Doña Dolores Salvatierra (Grace Conroy). Poinsett is attracted to both of them. The testing of Arthur Poinsett regarding his incontinence, the egotist, the hero who cannot be “true” to a lover while still being laudable for his intelligence, is designed to perhaps disturb the reader. Yet the testing of Poinsett by Father Felipe is instructive of truths about human motivation. Their interaction shows self-interest to be a strong factor. Harte’s use of the flawed hero, Poinsett, also treats the role of self-interest regarding romance, which is instructive and reflective of differences in real people and societies. The flawed hero Poinsett represents is an archetypal portrayal of motivations for an individual to undergo mating rituals and acquire resources. The moment of Doña Maria’s weakness whereupon Poinsett saves her from quicksand demonstrates Poinsett’s vanity, perhaps resembling a dream to be a cultivated man of power. The positive and negative moral domain of Poinsett’s rugged but cultured individuality makes him a complex and interesting character. The reader might sympathize that a better man may emerge from Poinsett’s faults and talents, which are all too human and appreciable. Poinsett’s calculated behavior, declaimed by Harte when he is caught by Father Felipe in a moment of apparent weakness, devoutly praying, or faking prayer and tears, hints that Poinsett may still be an impostor from time to time. It could be that any challenge for him to convince another of his superiority Poinsett considers a game. Most importantly, the reader does not know for certain whether Poinsett is ever telling the truth or lying. In Book Fourth, also set in 1854, the difference of years in the novel becomes more distinctive. As Andrea Tennemeyer writes regarding contemporary legal rulings, “The year 1854 was pivotal in the Southwest because it marked the California Supreme Court decision of People v. Hall regarding the racial and national identity of Chinese immigrants” (31). Regarding the barred testimony of Chinese immigrants on account of their racial status, the character of Ah Fe in the novel is unable to testify on behalf of Gabriel during his trial because of this ruling. This link between events in the novel and real events in Californian history indicates that Harte intentionally imprinted important identity-shaping events. As with the Donner Party and the missions, Harte’s inclusion of historic California law shows that he took meticulous care in creating his plot. This is also shown by the deity-specific connotations of the Conroys’ names. The legality of identity here also confirms Mary McAleer Balkun’s proposition regarding American identity that “The construction of a new self (of the refusal to accept the self imposed by society) is akin to the creation of an object, with all that term implies” (12). Although Harte’s description of California is limited to a specific time and place, it has to be in order to make room for the evolving mythos of Californian identity. In Gabriel Conroy, the identity of the self may even imply iniquitous civil rights. Harte does portray the Mission of San Antonio differently compared with the Spanish Quarter. The hierarchy of the missions also shows the difference between high and low class californios, which would entail a Hispanic dichotomy. Victor Ramirez, for example, mistaken for a Mexican, a Spaniard, and an Italian (he is Chilean), always suffers defeats, gets punched, and loses his buck such as in the chapter “Victor Makes a Discovery” (Harte, Gabriel 224). As an ethnic outsider, Ramirez’s special status, when viewed symbolically, makes him an ideal candidate for defeats. This is unfortunate, but it does not reveal any prejudice by Harte in fashioning an ethnic character who loses, especially for California during this time period. It would be dishonest for Harte to overlook such historic racism (Bean 122). Although Victor Ramirez dies in the novel, and is not particularly noble, Harte would later, while living in Britain, create the character of Enriquez Saltello, an honorable Californian vaquero.