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...
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