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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

Bret Harte is usually labeled a local colorist. The local-color, or regional-realism, movement hit its peak in American literature between 1870 and 1890. It was fiction that emphasized the speech, dress, mannerisms, and values of a particular region. Literature of this type was usually more concerned with surface presentation of the characters than with probing their psychological motivations. The characters are more likely to be representatives of a specific place than clearly defined individuals, and the stories often descend to the facile conventions of hack writing. Harte never quite transcended this genre, but he became one of the most famous practitioners of local color, along with the early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.

Two aspects of local color that help illustrate the attributes of a locale and its people are humor and hyperbole. Harte uses comic scenes, dialogue, and descriptions to offset the tragedy of the story and to keep it from turning into melodrama. Much of the humor is based on hyperbole—language that is exaggerated or overstated for the situation. Sometimes this is reversed to understatement, in which the words seem too insignificant for the occasion. The language is often a parody of romantic or sentimental fiction. Also involved in balancing the tragedy is the gambler’s stoical approach to life. Outwardly impervious to pain or anger, Oakhurst faces life as if it were a game of cards, and his attitude is defined in language associated with gambling. The ridiculous or pathetic aspects of the others are contrasted with the dignity of Oakhurst.

The opening pages are filled with language that seems too grand for the events. Oakhurst notices that there is a change in the “moral atmosphere” of the town. There is a “Sabbath lull” in a community “unused to Sabbath influences.” Poker Flat is experiencing a “spasm of virtuous reaction” to the crimes that have been committed. The secret committee rids the town “permanently” of two alleged criminals, while it “sits in judgment” on the “impropriety” of the “professional ladies” it decides to banish. The gambler is saved from hanging caused by “local prejudice” only because of a “crude sentiment of equity” in the breasts of several townsmen who had been lucky enough to win from him.

For a brief period in the story, Uncle Billy serves as a foil to Oakhurst. When the “deported wickedness” of the town is abandoned by the vigilantes, Mother Shipton uses some bad language, but Uncle Billy explodes a “volley of expletives” at his tormentors in an attempt to gain revenge through the colorful use of words. Billy then directs his attention to his fellow expatriates and condemns them in a “sweeping anathema.” When Tom Simson arrives, Billy, at the threat of a kick from Oakhurst, stifles his laughter while listening to the youth talk about how he is going to Poker Flat to “seek his fortune.” He can barely restrain himself when Simson refers to the Duchess as Mrs. Oakhurst. Billy has to retreat from the group until he can “recover his gravity,” but not before he “confides his joke” to the trees with leg-slapping, face contortions, and the “usual profanity.” As he returns and surveys the “sylvan group,” Uncle Billy formulates his plan of desertion.

In contrast, Oakhurst sees the situation from the stoical viewpoint of a gambler who has not unexpectedly fallen on hard times but who has to make the best of it in an honorable way. He tries to hide Billy’s treachery from the others by suggesting that he and the mules only got lost in...

(This entire section contains 755 words.)

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the blizzard, but their morale is damaged by the loss of the supplies. Only Simson enjoys the “prospect of their forced seclusion,” and he tries to entertain them with “square fun,” including tales about Homer’s “Ashheels” (or Achilles). Oakhurst, however, concerns himself with the “losing game before him.” When he sees that there is no hope left, he “hands in his checks” to conclude his “streak of bad luck.” His acceptance of death has been learned from his “pariah trade,” and his suicide note is written on the deuce of clubs, the lowest card, to symbolize that his luck and life have run out.

The tone of the story, though, is essentially humorous. Life is cheap in the Old West, where gold is more important than morality. However, with his objective method of telling the story, the author is able to make his social commentary unobtrusively. The story is, first of all, entertaining.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

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The simplicity of the story is a result of the too-easy transformation of such characters as “the Duchess,” a prostitute who reveals a “heart of gold,” and “Mother Shipton,” an old reprobate who gives up her food, and thus her life, so that the innocent Piney Woods can live. The unlikely combination of the innocence of the young couple and the “sin” of the outcasts forms a sympathetic human community.

The story’s sentimentality reaches its climax when Piney and the Duchess are found frozen to death and all “human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” One cannot tell which is the innocent virgin and which is the sinful prostitute.

The gambler, John Oakhurst, is the most interesting and complex character in the story, even though he too, in his philosophic attitude toward reality, is more a cliche than a fully embodied person. Although he stoically accepts his fate throughout the story and reveals his basically noble nature, at the tale’s conclusion he takes his own life rather than await death by freezing and starvation. Thus he is called the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

Oakhurst approaches life as his profession dictates, basing his actions on his awareness of luck; knowing when it will change is what makes a man, he says. His suicide at the end can thus be attributed to his knowledge that he has “hit a streak of bad luck"; he “cashes in his chips” before he “loses the game” of life.

Historical Context

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Gold Fever and the Manifest Destiny During the late 1860s, Harte's tales of the California Gold Rush elevated him to a position of national fame. For the remainder of his career, he utilized the West as the setting for his stories and the inspiration for his lectures on life in the gold mines. Americans throughout the country were fascinated by the expansion of the country and tales of the wild West became part of the national consciousness. At the time of their publication, Harte's stones were primarily an idealized vision of an era that had recently passed. By the 1870s, the West was becoming more and more settled, and the vigilante justice of the frontier days was fast fading. While the settlement of the West remained an important topic for books and magazines, it is important to note that "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" appeared less than four years after the end of the Civil War. For a nation exhausted by war, Harte's story of heroics and tolerance recalled a happier period of innocence and opportunity.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Gold Rush as a historical event; within two years, the sparsely settled territory of California had become the fastest growing state in the union. As aspiring miners arrived from Europe, Asia, South America, and virtually every American state, the population of San Francisco leaped from approximately 800 people in 1848 to over 40,000 in 1850. Although the frenzy for prospecting subsided by the late 1850s, California was left with an infrastructure for industry, transportation, and agriculture that would have taken decades to develop under normal circumstances. For Americans of the day, the rapid settlement of California validated the doctrine of Manifest Destiny: the belief that it was God's will for the nation to expand across the continent.

However, romanticized depictions of the Gold Rush often overlook the unhappy outcome of the event for many prospectors. Relatively few of the '49ers managed to accumulate genuine wealth. Although most prospectors were successful in locating gold, the high cost of living in California prevented miners from pocketing much of their newfound riches. An additional consequence of the Gold Rush was the near-destruction of California's Native American population. The area contained dozens of autonomous Indian tribes, most of which resided in the regions which were the primary centers for mining activity. As a result, these cultures were the victims of both disease and military attacks and were nearing extinction by the 1870s.

Country Longs for a More Simple Time Harte's fiction was not only a depiction of the past, but it was also a reaction to contemporary events. The American Civil War had halted westward migration from 1861 to 1865. Once the hostilities had ended, though, the nation was anxious to resume its expansion Although the Pacific shore had been transformed into a center for industry and commerce, the vast area of the Great Plains remained largely unsettled by whites. Like 1849, the late 1860s was an era of movement into new lands.

Even though the post-bellum years were perceived to be a time of imminent opportunity, much of the nation was suffering from the effects of the war. The South was in ruins and resentful of the policies of Reconstruction. The country as a whole experienced a series of financial depressions as the economy readjusted to peacetime conditions. Ulysses S. Grant's 1868 election to the presidency marked the beginning of an era of widespread and highly publicized governmental corruption. Therefore it is not surprising that Harte's vision of a Western society populated with shrewd but valorous individuals such as John Oakhurst would resonate with readers of the day. Anxious to overlook their own shortcomings and to escape the troubles of the present, audiences looked to authors such as Harte to evoke a noble past to which they could hope to return in the future.

Literary Style

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Setting The setting of” The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' is of major importance. The story occurs in November, 1850, during the heyday of the California Gold Rush. At that time, law and order on the mining frontier was often synonymous with vigilante justice, in which townspeople took matters into their own hands. Communities such as Poker Flat generally operated outside the reach of established judicial systems, and the type of vigilante activity Harte depicts was an accepted part of everyday life.

The story is set in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a remote area in eastern California where the sudden occurrence of a winter storm could easily result in death for travelers. The most famous example of such a misfortune is the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, in which twelve travelers starved to death and the remaining members resorted to cannibalism. This tragedy was highly publicized for years afterwards and was undoubtedly familiar to the original readers of this story. In an era before automobiles, or extensive railways, the fear of being stranded while traveling was real and vivid.

Genre Genre is the term used to denote a category of literature. "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is above all, a Western story. Other types of genre literature are science fiction, horror, and romance. Genre works can be identified by then conventions; some of the conventions of Westerns are that they take place on the frontier, they contain “good'' guys and "bad" guys, female characters are either virtuous or "fallen,'' and conflicts that result in showdowns or gunfights often end in death. All of these elements are prominent m Harte' s story; one might say that the "showdown" is the battle between the travelers and Mother Nature.

Comic Relief Although Harte's story is essentially a tragedy, the narrative contains moments of humor. Rather than the story containing a humorous character per se, the story's levity arises from the narrator's understatement and sometimes condescending tone towards the characters. As an example, the narrator comments that "notwithstanding some difficulties attending the manipulation of this instrument, Piney Woods managed to pluck several reluctant melodies from its keys." Elsewhere, the narrator evaluates Tom's recitation skills by stating he had “thoroughly mastered the argument and fairly forgotten the words." Critics often cited Harte's ability to balance the tragic and the comic as one of his strongest skills as a writer.

Compare and Contrast

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1850s: The United States embraces the concept of "Manifest Destiny," a phrase coined in an article in the July-August, 1845, issue of United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The phrase imparts the view that it is God's will that the young nation expand across the continent. In the resulting expansion, settlers race west to California in search of gold in 1849.

1997: Although no longer claiming that expansionism is God's will, the United States continues to explore new frontiers. U.S. astronauts work side-by-side with their Russian counterparts aboard the Russian space station Mir in an effort to investigate the prospects of long-term cooperation in space.

1850s: American society at large perceives gambling at cards and other games of chance, in which money changes hands, as the domain of drifters, con-men, and prostitutes.

1997: Casino gambling is no longer confined to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, having come to be seen as a route to financial reinvigoration in large American cities. Candidates for municipal office often stake their political prospects on their success in bringing casino' 'gaming'' to town, while political figures who oppose casinos are publicly vilified as out-of-touch prigs and Puritans.

Media Adaptations

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Several film versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have been made. The earliest adaptation was a 1919 silent film produced by Universal Studios. In 1937, RKO-Radio Pictures remade the picture with Van Heflin portraying John Oakhurst. In 1952, Twentieth Century-Fox produced a version starring Dale Robertson, Anne Baxter, and Cameron Mitchell.

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" became an opera in 1959, with music by Jonathan Elkus and libretto by Robert Gene Bander. Perry Edwards created a one-act play based on the story published by Dramatic Publishing in 1968.

A one-act play written by Perry Edwards and based on "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" was published by Dramatic Publishing m 1968.

Several filmstrip versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" are available. A 1973 version by Brunswick Productions utilizes captions, while a 1977 filmstrip from Listening Library includes a cassette recording.

Listening Library released an audiocassette in 1973, The Best of Bret Harte: "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," "The Luck of Roaring Camp,'' in which the stories are read by Ralph Bell.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Brooks, Cleanth, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren. "Tennessee's Partner,'' In Understanding Fiction, pp. 219-20. New York-F S Croft, 1943.

Polsom, James K "Bret Harte,'' in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, edited by Frank N Magill, Salem Press, 1981, pp. 1129-35.

Glover, Donald E. " A Reconsideration of Bret Harte's Later Works," in Western American Literature, Vol. 8, Fall, 1973, pp 143-51.

Kolb, Harold H, Jr. "The Outcasts of Literary Flat Bret Harte as Humorist,'' in American Literary Realism, Vol. 23, Winter, 1991, pp. 52-63.

Morrow, Patrick. "The Predicament of Bret Harte," in American Literary Realism, Vol. 5, Summer, 1972, pp. 181-88.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. In American Fiction- An Historical and Critical Survey, New York. D. Appleton-Century Co., 1936.

Starr, Kevin Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915, New York. Oxford University Press, 1973.

Further Reading Gardner, Joseph H "Bret Harte and the Dickensian Mode in America," in Canadian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 2, Fall, 1971, pp. S9-101. Primarily a comparison between Bret Harte and Charles Dickens which also summarizes many reviews of Harte's writing from 1870 to 1902.

May, Ernest R "Bret Harte and the Overland Monthly,'' in American Literature, Vol 22, November, 1950, pp. 260-71. A valuable account of Harte's early career and the important magazine he helped to found.

Scharnhorst, Gary Bret Harte, Twayne, 1992. A brief but comprehensive volume on the author's life and career. Includes a bibliography.


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Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.

Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1979.




Critical Essays