"Tennessee's Partner" as Sentimental Western Metanarrative

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Published interpretations of Bret Harte's "Tennessee's Partner" (1869) differ widely, but most share a common expectation. Like the New Critics who once declared the story "oversimplified," even sympathetic readers agree that the key to understanding the tale must be explaining the title character's inscrutable motive.1 The story and its problem are well-known: Tennessee absconds with his partner's wife, and when the wife runs off with yet another man, the Partner welcomes Tennessee home in defiance of everyone's expectations. Puzzled by the Partner's loyalty, critics have tended to assume that the Partner must be a "realistic" narrative creation with a recognizable psychology. Yet while Harte was capable of creating psychologically realistic characters, there is no reason to assume at the outset that Tennessee's Partner is one of them, nor to assume that the success of the story depends on the Partner's realism.

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