(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Jackson Lears’s subject in Something for Nothing is gambling, not merely the pastime or even the obsession, but gambling as a cultural stance from which to view and engage with the cosmos. Lears mines a four-hundred-year-long vein of lore about luck in America, extracting historical nuggets glittering with myriad colorful and quintessentially American characters, including American Indian shamans, African American fortune-tellers, Mississippi riverboat gamblers, and Wall Street day traders, all exhibiting a faith in the roll of the dice or its equivalent that rivals and sometimes trumps the power of prayer.

It is Lears’s contention that these two competing strategies for influencing fate exemplify two competing cultures that have vied for dominance throughout American history: the “culture of chance” and the “culture of control.” Representatives of the culture of chance include Charles Darwin, Fyodor Dostoevski, William James, Frank Norris, Damon Runyon, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Roman Catholics, Gypsies, southern slave owners, and African Americans. A sampling from the culture of control includes Increase Mather, P. T. Barnum, Adam Smith, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Anthony Comstock, Jane Addams, John D. Rockefeller, Chinese Communists, Robert Kennedy, and German and Italian Fascists.

Although Lears admits that these contrasting cultures are not uniquely American, as the above lists of names indicate, he submits that nowhere else has their conflict been so protracted or divisive because nowhere else has the dominant creed been the Protestant ethic, the belief that hard work will lead to reward in this world. Inextricably linked with the technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution, this American can-do credo insists that man is not just the measure but the manipulator and sometimes master of at least some things, including fate. This self-reliant worldview reeks of hubris, according to Lears, who seems to favor the more humble citizens of the culture of chance, the supplicants of Lady Luck, or the goddess Fortuna. Lears’s thesis thus establishes a familiar dichotomy: controlled, powerful, Protestant, white male versus impulsive, powerless, non-Protestant, nonwhite or female—one sober, industrious, rational, and dourly religious, and the other exuberant, playful, irrational, and charmingly superstitious.

While acknowledging that neither culture exists in a pure form, Lears claims that the culture of control seeks to minimize the disruptions of chance through belief in predestination, scientific rationality, and regulations outlawing gambling and other “victimless” crimes, while the culture of chance views the vagaries of luck as opportunity. Those who court luck by rejecting an all-knowing deity and cause and effect Lears approvingly imbues with what he calls “grace,” a kind of spiritual insight gained through acceptance of one’s ultimate powerlessness in a random universe, an opening of oneself to what the pragmatist William James describes as pure experience. Lears admires their engagement in “serious play” rather than in the mundane nose-to-grindstone world of sweat and toil and fiscal responsibility. In fact, the two cultures’ contrasting attitudes toward finance are telling. Lears’s culture of control values money: Its members may earn it, inherit it, hoard it, or invest it, but under no circumstances may they gamble with it. His culture of chance does not value money: To its happy-go-lucky folks, those pieces of paper are all just Monopoly money anyway, useful stuff for keeping score and a pleasure to give away but not worth worrying about. In fact, in the culture of chance, signs of attachment to filthy lucre are suspect.

There is a glint of a tantalizing truth to Lears’s observations. Among amusing anecdotes of lady gamblers and confidence men are pointed criticisms of members of the culture of control who condemn gambling while claiming to have hoisted themselves up the ladder of success by their own bootstraps, forgetting to mention being lucky enough to be born to a higher rung than most or passing over the shady deal or lucky strike or two that gave them the stake they needed to get ahead. He makes the obvious comparisons: wheeling and dealing in the stock market, state lotteries, and church bingo versus playing the horses, numbers games, and keno. The point is true but trite: There is legal and illegal gambling, and for the state and moralists to claim that one is good and the other bad is hypocrisy.

However, because the culture of control is not really what concerns Lears, he dismisses its arguments against gambling while barely addressing them. His real focus is not on public policy but on the gallant gambler himself (and, as an afterthought and sop to feminists, herself), the free-spirited holy rambler, living in the present, generous to one and all, worshiping at the altar of Lady Luck, and...

(The entire section is 2001 words.)