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Outside Providence

Jefferson Decker

Something for Nothing: Luck in America
Jackson Lears
Viking, $27.95 (cloth)

8 A gambler and confidence man, William “Canada Bill” Jones plied his trade along the Mississippi River in the middle of the 19th century. According to his partner, Jones “had a squeaking, boyish voice, and awkward gawky manners, and a way of asking fool questions and putting on a good natured sort of grin, that led everybody to believe that he was the rankest kind of sucker—the greenest sort of country jake.” In truth, he was a card cheat of remarkable dexterity who routinely cleaned out the sophisticates in games of three-card monte. But he never managed to hold on to his winnings. After conning a new victim, Jones would gamble away his money at faro, usually in crooked games run by other hustlers. Once, a friend tried to pry him away, warning him that the game was rigged. “I know it,” Jones reputedly answered, “but it’s the only game in town.”

For historian Jackson Lears, Jones is part of a long tradition: Americans love to gamble, even when the deck is stacked. Before European colonization, Iroquois men and women exchanged tobacco, shoes, leggings, even domestic services in elaborate “sacred bowl” games. Eighteenth-century Virginia gentlemen kept a cup of dice on their desks and mingled with commoners at horse races and cockfights. And this affair with chance has only intensified in recent years. Casino operators encounter customers wearing adult diapers in order to extend their stay at a lucky slot machine. Devotees of video poker describe the trancelike experience—like “being sucked into oblivion”—of playing for hours on end. Slot machines and video poker are terrible bets; for many Americans, though, they are the only games in town.

Something for Nothing tries to explain the persistent allure of gambling and a broader “culture of chance” in the United States—the reverence for the big risk, the workings of accident, even dumb luck. It’s not the only tradition, or even the dominant one. Americans, Lears writes, also have a “culture of control” that stresses the Protestant ethic, promising reward for slow and steady work. For hundreds of years, these two cultures have competed for Americans’ allegiance.

According to Lears, the culture of control emerged from the ideas and experiences of America’s early British settlers, especially the New England Puritans. At its heart is the Calvinist idea of Providence—the notion that God gives order and direction to our lives, and that the cosmos ultimately makes sense. Colonists understood their trials in a strange, hostile world as part of a divine plan and hoped they might someday build “God’s New Israel” in the New World. By the 19th century, though, Providence had mingled with secular culture and “prosperity itself came to seem a sign of God’s blessing—at least to the more affluent.” The hero of secular providentialism is not the self-denying Puritan so much as the self-made man, whose determined pursuit of Protestant values allows him to “make his own luck.” And its guiding image is the City on a Hill, whose wealth and power signal its righteousness.

Providentialism, though, has always been challenged by the culture of chance. It too is rooted in a spiritual notion—the idea of grace. For Lears, grace is “what happens when openness to chance yields a deeper awareness of the cosmos or one’s place in it—when luck leads to spiritual insight.” In its secular form, grace suggests that we cannot always control whether we ultimately succeed or fail, but it offers perpetual hope that our luck could change.

Tensions between an official culture of control and thriving cultures of chance sharpened after the Civil War. Robber barons and their allies needed to justify the massive new inequalities of industrial capitalism, and Horatio Alger–style stories of hard work and just reward did precisely that. The official culture demonized chance, sometimes to a comic extreme: P. T. Barnum’s Dollars and Sense: Or, How to Get On (1890) featured an illustration, titled “Luck,” of a horned devil with playing cards, poker chips, a lottery ticket, and dice. For the gamblers, sharpers, and confidence men who exploited the wilder side of Gilded Age America, that critique required a fair amount of self-denial (especially coming from Barnum, himself a master of the con). George Devol, a friend of Canada Bill Jones, argued that their type hewed to a stronger ethical code than the Rockefellers or the Carnegies. “A gambler’s word is as good as his bond, and that is more than I can say of many business men who stand very high in the community,” wrote Devol. “The gambler will pay when he has money, which many good church members will not.”

*  *  *

The 20th century changed the terms of the debate. Business standardized its operations and consolidated into trusts. Cities filled with immigrants and former farmers; apartment buildings and cable-car systems were created to house and transport them. Progressive reformers tried to use the government and other institutions to tame a boom-and-bust economy, ameliorate inequalities, and build an efficient, productive labor force. The managerial capitalism that had emerged by the 1930s insured Americans against some of the economic risk of the new industrial order. But it did so, Lears points out, through a type of control—the notion that the complicated mess of American life could be managed rationally by the government and other “social engineers.” Even at the apex of these ideas in the 1950s and 1960s, Lears argues, Americans found room for randomness and accident. Among artists, John Cage composed music by tuning radios to twelve different stations at the same time, while Jackson Pollock found immense power in the way that paint splattered when he hurled it against the canvas. Meanwhile, Ralph Ellison celebrated the trickster figure—the African-American Canada Bill—as a way around institutionalized racism.

Mainstream American culture often treats gambling with clinical condescension: the New York Times recently asked, “Fervid Debate on Gambling: Disease or Moral Weakness?” Lears resists the notion that appealing to chance is irrational, self-defeating, or superstitious. He points out that casino gambling and public lotteries typically redistribute money from the poor to the better off (and can be objected to on those grounds); nevertheless, they can provide hope to the people they fleece, the possibility, albeit small, of escaping the everyday grind of work and bills.

Any attempt to synthesize four hundred years of American history in about three hundred pages can reasonably be accused of overreach, and Something for Nothing is no exception. Still, Lears tells his sweeping story briskly and clearly, and the value of the book is less in the nuances than in the general concepts it brings to bear on the issue.

Unfortunately, those concepts elide some important distinctions. In speaking of “culture,” Lears is not always clear about what he means. People who share a series of practices based on control but who don’t necessarily share a providentialist worldview (say, many managerial capitalists) get grouped together with those who believe in secular providentialism but lack distinctive practices related to that way of thinking (such as some of the Gilded Age robber barons). Likewise, it’s not clear which is more important: the presence of games of chance or the persistence of a worldview based on grace. Do they correspond completely, so that every gambler eventually achieves some sort of spiritual insight? Or is the relationship more complicated, more tenuous?

This confusion muddles a key point about contemporary American life. For many of us, success and failure turn on lucky breaks and fluke occurrences—starting most importantly with the accident of birth. Lears hopes more awareness of contingency and less Horatio Alger myth would make our society more just: “A culture less intent on the individual’s responsibility to master destiny might be more capacious, more generous, more gracious.”

Americans do need a worldview that accepts more contingency. Less certain is whether we need the whole culture of chance, at least in the way that the gamblers profiled in this book tend to embody it. Take, for example, Jack Straus, a card player who won $40,000 at the World Series of Poker and offered to wager it all on whether Jack Nicklaus would sink his next putt. Lears argues that Straus exemplifies the gambler’s “moral economy”—his willingness to throw away his winnings proves that ultimately money does not matter to him. But Straus’s actions could just as easily be seen as a compulsion to reinvest profits. “Gambling,” Lears admits elsewhere, “was not merely about money, but it was still—inescapably—about money.”

More broadly, the Protestant work ethic, to which Lears is hostile, has its virtues. Steady work and an aversion to risk rarely result in “a victory over money, the tyrant that has been pushing you around your whole life,” as Frederick and Steven Barthelme described the triumph of a big win. But they can create conditions in which love, friendship, and trust might flourish; the gamblers in Something for Nothing, by contrast, tend to die broke and alone. Moreover, there’s a form of social solidarity in the Protestant ethic—a sense of doing one’s part, treating other people fairly, with decency, and not (as would a confidence man) like chumps. Such solidarity might itself be a precondition for the more generous America that Lears hopes will emerge. I doubt that any one of these virtues would be incompatible with a society that rejected providentialism. We ought to balance an awareness of chance with the desire for control. Otherwise, we’re stuck at the faro table, playing yet another hand, wondering when our luck will run out.<


Jefferson Decker
, former managing editor of Boston Review, is a doctoral candidate in American history at Columbia University.

Originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Boston Review



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