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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Frontier Life

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During the late 1860s, Bret Harte was widely regarded as one of America's most promising authors. Such tales of life during the California Gold Rush as "The Outcasts of Poker Flat,"' "The Luck of Roaring Camp," and "Tennessee's Partner" were applauded for exploring the romance and adventure of recent American history. Harte's greatest gift was considered to be a masterful ability to create setting by employing local color and regional dialects. Although his detractors complain that the author's depictions of life in the mining camps and gold fields are riddled with inaccuracies, one cannot deny that Harte's style was a powerful influence on subsequent fiction dealing with the American West

While the majority of Harte's work has been forgotten, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" has retained a place within the literary canon. Such scholars as James K. Folsom suggest that Harte's lingering presence is due to importance rather than quality, arguing that his writing remains of interest because of its impact upon others rather than from any intrinsic merit. While this is not entirely false, it does not explain why readers return to this tale as opposed to "Found at Blazing Star," "A Waif of the Plains," or any other of the dozens of Harte's works that have faded into obscurity. Perhaps the saga of the doomed outcasts contains some special quality that allows us to appreciate its subtleties more than a century after it was written.

One possible approach in examining "The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' is to place the story within the context of writing about the American frontier experience. In Harte's narrative, four individuals are ejected from the relative security of a Gold Rush boom town. Marooned in the wilderness of the California mountains, they experience a confrontation with nature. Although this event is ultimately destructive, the encounter also allows some of the party to be morally rejuvenated by the escape from civilization.

This literary theme of insight through isolation was well established by Harte's time. One can look to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," in which a man's walk through the woods alerts him to the hypocrisy present in Puritan New England, to find a possible precursor to Harte. Indeed, Harte is clearly locating duplicity within Poker Flat; the members of the "secret committee" that banishes the outcasts have gambled with Oakhurst and have been "familiar" with Duchess.

For American writers, before and after Harte, the frontier setting has played the part of an ethical testing ground, providing a space in which individuals have no choice but to reveal their true moral caliber. An early example of this motif is Mary Rowlandson's 1682 account of her captivity by Indians in colonial America. Widely read in its day, Rowlandson's account describes her ordeal as a reaction by an angry God to her earlier sins. Her captivity functions as a divine test that eventually restores her to grace with her Creator. Central to this experience is her isolation from peers and society, an event that fosters a degree of introspection that would have been otherwise impossible.

Similarly, the ejection of the outcasts from Poker Flat provides them with an opportunity for self-reflection. Clearly this is the case with Oakhurst. "As he gazed at his recumbent fellow-exiles," the reader is told, "the loneliness begotten of his pariah-trade, his habits of life, his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him." This self-examination eventually leads the gambler to conclude that his luck has finally run out From this perspective, his suicide merely hastens an end that he considers inevitable.

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' also contains the appealing message that given the opportunity, anyone might prove a hero Although Oakhurst rejects his chance, Duchess and Mother Shipton clearly rise above their disreputable social positions in their efforts to care for Piney. The Innocent bravely confronts the snowstorm trying to save the party. Likewise, through her attempts to distract the outcasts from their misfortune as well as in her final comforting of Duchess, Piney can also be considered heroic.

The popularity of heroic figures in American fiction was well established by the time Harte began to publish. A generation earlier, James Fenimore Cooper's tales of frontier hero Natty Bumppo, including The Pioneers and The Last of the Mohicans, were among the best-selling works of the day. Harte's familiarity with Cooper's work is easily verified by a look at his Condensed Novels, a collection of parodies of popular books that was published two years prior to "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." In one of the selections, Muck-a-Muck: A Modern Indian Novel, Cooper is the target of Harte's satire. In recalling this work from his journeyman years, one cannot help but wonder if Harte's melodramatic tale of the snowbound outcasts is also a humorous take on the American fascination with the frontier as site of heroism and moral regeneration.

At least one Harte scholar, Harold H. Kolb, argues that an inordinate amount of attention has been given to the author's talents as a regional writer and local colorist. Kolb suggests that Harte's greatest gift is that of humor. "The irony of his ironic style," Kolb comments, "is that, for half a century, he has had to be content with the enjoyment of his own fun." There are numerous asides and comments within “The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' that are designed to elicit a grin from the reader. Piney Woods, the character who is often interpreted as a symbol for the purity of love, is described as "a stout, comely damsel." Even the dire circumstances of the outcasts' confinement are diluted by the presence of an accordion's "fitful spasms" and the recitation of Homer "in the current vernacular of Sandy Bar."

In his argument that Harte is a frequently misunderstood humorist, Kolb bases his argument on the relation between author and audience. Another way of looking at this story is to view the proceedings as a satire on the near-sacred status bestowed on the relationship between Americans and the frontier in popular culture. A major difference between this story and most other sagas of the West is that despite some powerful transformations among the outcasts, none of these heroes survive unscathed. While the reader may conclude, since a rescue party does eventually reach the camp, that The Innocent safely reached Poker Flat, his reward is the corpse of his bride-to-be. Of the four outcasts from Poker Flat, the only apparent survivor is the unregenerate Uncle Billy, who steals the groups' mounts. Such an outcome leads one to suspect that Harte was at least somewhat cynical about the possibilities of renewal on the frontier.

The narrative structure of the story, a balance between authenticity and improbability, further alerts the reader that Harte's intentions may stretch beyond a warning against the penis of vigilante justice. When not labeling him a purveyor of melodrama, critics wishing to dismiss Harte are quick to point out major breaches of realism in the story. People rarely starve to death in a matter of days as does Mother Shipton, and Oakhurst’s ability to produce a pair of snowshoes from a pack saddle seems at least unusual in a professional gambler. However, such lapses into the unlikely do not equal flaws if one reads "The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' as a satire, rather than a realistic account, of frontier conditions

If one looks at the author's career, it is easy to envision him ridiculing popular beliefs about the glorious West. While Harte's initial rise to fame was a direct result of his presence within California's emerging literary community of the 1860s and his ability to commodify his experiences in the West, he left this cultural outpost at the earliest opportunity and never returned. If one reads his tale as a travesty not just of the West, but of the entire national vision of regeneration through confrontation with nature, there is additional significance in Harte's decision to reject the simplicity of the New World and spend the last twenty years of his life in Europe.

While "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is justifiably credited with influencing generations of subsequent writing about the West, one should also consider the work as a variation on themes that were firmly embedded in the American consciousness by the second half of the nineteenth century. Although on the surface Harte delivers a clear message on the dangers of judging others, he also suggests the reader should think twice before accepting certain parts of our cultural consciousness.

Source: Allen Barksdale, "An Overview of 'The Outcasts of Poker Flat'," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

Questions of Morality and Corruption

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When "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" appeared in the January, 1869, issue of the California journal Overland Monthly, it was widely praised as yet another example of Bret Harte's literary genius. The periodical Fun considered it "worthy of Hawthorne, “while the New Eclectic magazine thought it "droll and humorous, and at the same time deeply pathetic." When it appeared in a collection entitled The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly and one of the most influential American critics of the time, singled out "The Outcasts" for particular praise, noting Harte's "very fine and genuine" style of representing life in the American West, particularly California. However, not all the reviews were completely complimentary. The New York Times, while praising its "picturesque style," upbraided Harte for portraying the marginal members of society in a positive light. Similarly, the Spectator applauded Harte's "originality of style" but thought his characters "improper." This was the sort of criticism that would dog Harte's fiction well into the twentieth century, though his work was original and demonstrated admirable style, its characters were not compatible with contemporary morals.

When considered, such a reaction is hardly surprising, but the modern reader has grown accustomed to the conventions of the Western genre. We have come to expect that stories set in the "wild West" of the raid-nineteenth century will be peopled with gamblers, drunkards, cattle rustlers, whores, and all manner of dissolute individuals. Such characters appear to us as the norm rather than the exception, but Harte's contemporaries saw things very differently. To them, the John Oakhursts and Mother Shiptons of the world were immoral characters who had placed themselves at the margins of society and should be obliged to stay there. Indeed, this is exactly what happens to Oakhurst and the three others when Poker Hat's "secret committee" decides "to rid the town of all improper persons." For that matter, such moral exclusion continues today; even in a society burdened by crime and accustomed to vice, modern gamblers, hookers, and thieves are hardly considered socially acceptable. Rather, they are on the outskirts of society, pushed to our equivalent of "the gulch which marked the uttermost limit of Poker Flat."

Why, then, are we so willing to accept—and even applaud—such figures in works of fiction? How is it that we can look past the characters' vices and find their virtues when our forebears often could not' Part of the answer is that Western fiction has desensitized us to Western fact. Raised on a steady diet of John Wayne, Gunsmoke, and Doctor Quinn, we are no longer in touch with what really happened in the nineteenth-century American West.

We have been brought up to consider such character types as the town drunk, the self-sacrificing madam, and the generous gambler to be somehow representative of life m the West during that time period. While I surely do not mean to imply that such people did not exist in the "Old West," we can hardly consider them representative. Indeed, though we often skip over it, the title of Harte's story reminds us that most of its characters are indeed outcasts, persons in whom society cannot abide.

That said, what little we see of the characters paints most of them in a positive light. For that matter, there seem to be two types of outcasts: those who encourage vice, and those who are themselves vicious. Only one character, Uncle Billy, truly fits into the latter category. A "suspected sluice-robber"—that is, a thief who steals from gold miners—"and a confirmed drunkard," Uncle Billy is the only character who is truly without morals. He is forced out of Poker Flat because he is a leech upon society, an individual who takes without giving in return. Though we may not approve of the professions of John Oakhurst, the Duchess, or Mother Shipton, they assuredly contribute to the society of Poker Flat: Oakhurst by putting up his money in poker, the women by offering their bodies to paying customers. Though criminals, they participate in victimless crimes, the poker-players and solicitors with whom they associate are fully as criminal as these characters. Uncle Billy, though, is truly profligate. His crimes—assuming, that is, that the town's suspicions are not unfounded—have victims Whereas the other characters might be considered immoral, Uncle Billy is actively antisocial; his crimes threaten the foundations of society It should come as no surprise, then, that he steals the mules and horses while the others sleep. It is this act that ultimately leads to the destruction of the "society" of the camp. It is he, if anyone, who is the “villain" of Harte's story.

The other outcasts, despite being socially unacceptable (unacceptable, that is, in Poker Flat, but acceptable in Sandy Bar, a settlement that "not having as yet experienced the regenerating influences of Poker Flat, consequently seemed to offer some invitation") are actually quite admirable in ways not normally associated with gamblers and hookers. Indeed, it was this method of characterization for which Harte drew the greatest criticism. So common were his positive portraits of "fallen" individuals that one anonymous reviewer for the Spectator suggested that the author had suffered from "an attack of Dickens-on-the-bram," a reference to the English novelist's propensity to depict such characters in a similar sentimental light. Here, then, is the source of our modern tendency to look at the nineteenth-century American West and see a land of harmless and even noble immorality, a time and place where vice was common but vicious-ness was rare. Before Harte, there really were no stories that attempted to paint what life was like in California. Other writers had written about the "frontier," but the frontier kept moving west, and writers had a hard time keeping up. Harte's writings filled a void, and, as there was nothing to dispute what he wrote, the character types with which he peopled his stories established themselves as the stock-in-trade of future writers of stones in the Western genre. Towards the end of his life, by which time his writings were generally considered outdated and clichéd, he was disparagingly remembered as the writer who had created "the hooker with a heart of gold."

Such reproachful remarks, however, ignore the implicit social commentary of Harte's fiction. Though hardly a treatise on society's problems, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" undoubtedly makes certain critiques of life in early California. The outcasts are set in opposition to the town of Poker Flat, "a settlement unused to Sabbath influences" that, nonetheless, has recently undergone "a change in its moral atmosphere." That change, though, has not come about through any newfound interest in public ethics; rather, the townspeople who cast out "all improper persons'' are themselves guilty of similar improprieties. Jim Wheeler, the most vocal member of the "secret committee," wishes to get rid of Oakhurst not because he is a gambler but because he is a successful gambler. Wheeler's sense of morality is based on his being a poor loser rather than on any spiritual awakening. He, like the rest of the self-righteous secret committee members, is a hypocrite, and his self-proclaimed morality is in truth nothing more than greed.

In contrast, most of the outcasts—Uncle Billy being the lone exception—have admirable qualities. Oakhurst is the first to show his true colors when he gives the Duchess his horse, Five Spot, in exchange for her "sorry mule." He stays with the other outcasts when the Duchess insists on stopping, and, even though he seems capable of continuing alone, the "thought of deserting his weaker and more pitiable companions never perhaps occurred to him." Later we learn that, in an earlier encounter with Tom Simson, Oakhurst returned poker winnings of forty dollars to "the Innocent" with a warning to avoid cards in the future. Mother Shipton, despite her occasional uses of “bad language," is in fact a good and caring person who sets aside her portion of the rations to give Piney Woods a greater chance at survival. The Duchess, a fallen woman and yet an ingénue, tries to comfort Piney in their last hours. Though their professions make them socially unacceptable, all three are good people.

Indeed, this assessment is supported when the Innocent and Piney—the two most wholesome, honest, forthright characters the story offers—arrive and perceive the outcasts as anything but the sinners they supposedly are. Only the reprobate Uncle Billy finds any humor in Tom's mistaking of the Duchess for Oakhurst's wife, his own wickedness having warped him into a sneering, cynical cur. The others are quite willing to let Tom and Piney persist in their mistaken beliefs, to let them remain innocents as regards the outcasts' true natures. When they become snowed in and death seems imminent, the remaining outcasts still do not reveal their "true" selves as "there's no good frightening them [Tom and Piney] now." These, though, are their true selves. Oakhurst, the Duchess, and Mother Shipton are not the degenerate miscreants that the secret committee of Poker Flat deemed them; rather, they are honest, caring people whose professions conflict with Poker Flat's recent spate of false morality.

This conflict between a corrupt society and its virtuous outcasts is the central theme of Harte's story. By developing characters like the "hooker with a heart of gold" that would become Western stereotypes, Harte was not advocating prostitution, gambling, or thievery as modes of moral living; rather, he was arguing that morality is a matter of individual behavior and conscience rather than a societal construct. Though the secret committee of Poker Flat can exile the characters from the town, they have no right to pass judgment on them—the characters' actions, save those of Uncle Billy, show them to be as moral as, if not more moral than, the committee members. Ultimately, in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," society destroys rather than enforces morality.

Source: Jason Pierce, Overview of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.

Play, Sport, and Western Mythmaking

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The major sporting figure in Harte's fiction, the frontier gambler, juxtaposed nobility and moral outrage in a similar way. In Harte's three most famous tales—"The Luck of Roaring Camp" (Overland Monthly, August 1868), "Tennessee's Partner" (Overland Monthly, October 1869), and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (Overland Monthly, January 1869)—the professional gambler emerges as a gamesman by trade but a transcendent sportsman by instinct and action. He is a fatalist in a world dominated by chance, but his absolute commitment to honor and fair play lead to an ambiguous sentimental salvation....

The quintessential emblem of sporting fatalism in these stories is the death of John Oakhurst, which concludes "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Having been banished from Poker Flat, together with two prostitutes and a thief, Oakhurst “was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer." When the four exiles and an innocent young couple that joins them are trapped in a snowstorm, Oakhurst coolly surveys "the losing game before him" then slips away to play out his hand his own way. On a deuce of clubs pinned to a tree with a bowie knife, the rescuers who arrive too late discover his scrawled epitaph:

BENEATH THIS TREE LIES THE BODY OF JOHN OAKHURST WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD LUCK ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER, 1850, AND HANDED IN HIS CHECKS ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850

In the story's final line the narrator calls Oakhurst "at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat." This self-conscious ambivalence—the gambler as self-sacrificing hero, the gambler as blind fatalist—both typifies Harte's narrative strategy and signals the uneasiness with which genteel culture came to terms with this figure. Readers could be charmed or shocked by Bret Harte's stories, assured of the capacity for goodness in even the least likely souls, left uncertain whether proper values had in fact been affirmed after all, or convulsed with laughter at the moralism his fiction might have seemed to puncture....

Source: Michael Oriard, "Play, Sport, and Western Mythmaking," in Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American Culture, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pp 40-81.

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Critical Overview