“Tennessee’s Partner” chronicles an inexplicable bond between two men, Tennessee and his partner, both crude, unlettered mining camp men. The basis for their bond is never explained, but its durable strength is revealed in the fact that their friendship survives a breach of its faith: After Tennessee runs off with his partner’s wife, he returns to Sandy Bar and is welcomed back by his friend without rancor or resentment. Theirs is a friendship that transcends marriage ties—at least for the protagonist, Tennessee’s Partner.
Although Bret Harte’s story is in the tradition of local-color realism, its essential idea is romantic in origin. It argues that no matter how primitive a man appears to be, he may still possess some indelible virtue, such as loyalty. The devotion of Tennessee’s Partner to his friend is not contingent on refined sensibilities honed through schooling or sophisticated social codes. In fact, Tennessee’s Partner cannot even articulate the code by which he lives or the feelings that bind him to his friend. When he is asked to speak on Tennessee’s behalf at his friend’s trial, he can only ask, “What should a man know of his pardner?” To him, loyalty is simply a fact of his life—one as unfathomable to him as it is to the reader.
The fact that rough-and-tumble frontier mining camp existence scarcely seems a promising incubator for the kind of sensibilities that underlie the protagonist’s behavior makes...
(The entire section is 452 words.)