Certain inhabitants of Poker Flat feel that the community is going down the hill. They have lost a lot of money and the morals of people are thought to be sinking. Consequently a secret committee is elected. This committee decides who will be killed and who expatriated.
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This short story was adapted for film in , and again in Good luck finding it, though. Then [in ] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in to positive reviews , and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations. Poker and Pop This story remains interesting to a contemporary audience for its reminder that we thought quite differently about what it takes to live a good life, just years ago.
I really enjoyed most of it, though I want to rewrite the ending. Content note for suicide, with a large dose of sexism near the end. The illegal town of Deadwood popped up 20 years after this story is set, comprising squatters after gold, and the services around them. While Deadwood has remained in our collective memory as a lawless, wild Western town, there must have been many more like it.
Stranded outside in Australia at the end of November? But I am reminded later in the story that, for Americans, November 22 marks the onset of winter, a month before winter solstice. Of course it snows in the mountainous parts of California, ie. The Sierras, the Cascade mountains. More on The Seasons of Storytelling. The guy before him died. America had 31 states and 4 organised territories at this time. California had been an American state only since September 9 of that year.
In September the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by congress. This was a terrible law which required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate.
And still do, in certain contexts. For Bret Harte, writing this story almost 50 years later, America had undergone huge changes, most notably industrialisation, civil war and the abolishment of slavery. To Harte and his contemporary readers, would have felt like an entire lifetime ago, harking back to an almost mythic past.
This marked the beginning of the age of the Western Story, actually. The America he was born into was absolutely not the America he saw as an old man. For a time he worked as a reporter and was left in charge of a newspaper called the Northern Californian for a time. During that time he covered the massacre of Wiyot Indians. He condemned the slayings, citing Christianity. He said no civilised peoples should be doing that to other peoples.
Not everyone agreed with that. He was forced to flee a month later. He quit his job as a reporter and moved to San Francisco. In short, Harte knew what it was like to be shooed out of town. He may have even contemplated suicide himself. Harte had also fallen out with Mark Twain, previously a friend. Though the character of Mother Shipton is a crass woman, Harte eventually leads his reader to empathise with her and respect her. He probably keeps himself cleaner and tidier than typical cowboy types of the era.
He is introduced to us wiping the red dust off his boots with his handkerchief. There are two men hanging from a sycamore tree. Sex workers have been shooed out. A man named Jim Wheeler is named as the personification of all those who have lost money.
Between themselves, they can justify killing him. The narrator skips the part where Oakhurst is apprehended and led to court. Like a true antihero, Oakhurst receives this verdict with calmness, understanding the nature of fate. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He 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 favour of the dealer. These characters are almost always men. Annie Proulx also likes to write fatalistic characters, eking out their miserable lives in harsh Wyoming environments. There is something highly gendered about a fatalistic outlook in fiction. Accepting death as a natural outcome of life is a sign of strength and therefore of ideal masculinity, as idealised by the communities themselves.
Do we still idealise a fatalistic outlook, or do we poke fun at it? True Detective does both. After sentencing, a body of armed men escorts a small group of individuals to the edge of town. Then the four of them are forced to make their own way to the next camp.
The name comes from English woman Ursula Southeil, born in the late s. She was better known as Mother Shipton, and was thought to have been a soothsayer and prophetess. A sluice is a slanted channel used to filter gold out from dirt or sand. In gold digging eras, diggers would claim their own spot. Either that or the townsfolk used this excuse to get rid of him for his heavy drinking.
Each of the other three escorted out of town are therefore presented as upset and emotional about their expulsion, in contrast to the calm and collected, fatalistic Western antihero of Oakhurst. This really does feel like a sequence straight out of Red Dead Redemption. A wooded amphitheatre, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley. It was, undoubtedly, the most suitable spot for a camp, had camping been advisable.
The other outcasts have succumbed variously to the liquor and only Oakhurst remains fully sentient as he does not drink. In this era, resisting drink is its own superpower. But Simson is very friendly and points out this is bad place to camp. From here he sees the expanded party has started a fire and that the weather has changed. Notice how Uncle Billy has been separated from the group. Harte did this by a switch in point of view, like the opponent viewing his prey from a distance, through the trees.
This is a very cinematic short story. Harte continues to create a creepy atmosphere for us: As the shadows crept slowly up the mountain, a slight breeze rocked the tops of the pine-trees, and moaned through their long and gloomy aisles.
The ruined cabin, patched and covered with pine-boughs, was set apart for the ladies. The women sleep in the hut. The men stoke the fire, lie down outside the door and soon fall asleep. Oakhurst is a light sleeper, and wakes up cold. He has to wake the other men before they freeze to death, but he finds Uncle Billy has gone.
All the mules have gone, too. The tracks are disappearing in the snow. He cracks on it was a drunken accident, wandering off like that, and accidentally setting free the mules. Simson is happy to share his supplies with the rest of the party. Now Bret Harte decides to remove Oakhurst from the happy party, dancing and singing around a fire, all against the backdrop of a blizzard. Mother Shipton saw it, and from a remote pinnacle of her rocky fastness, hurled in that direction a final malediction.
Although Mother Shipton deals with it by yelling expletives into the void, the others amuse themselves with music, then they start to tell stories.
So The Innocent starts recounting The Iliad in his own words. He read a translation some months ago. This goes on for another week. A mythic amount of snow has fallen around them. They have little food. Mother Shipton decides to die. Oakhurst suggests he and The Innocent set off out of there, despite the conditions.
The women die after the roof of their hut caves in under snow. The sexual past of a woman who is a mother juxtaposes against the implied virgin state of the daughter in a a scene very reminiscent of this one, albeit written with the morality of a full century earlier. Then we have the fact that suicide was considered a grave sin. When it is revealed that Oakhurst has killed himself rather than fulfil his promise of returning to the young women, the narrator tells us that the strongest man has turned out to be the weakest.
Even Mother Shipton did something good before she died by sacrificing her food for the virtuous younger woman. But Oakhurst has done nothing did he keep those rations for himself?
By giving us this ending, Harte has built up a man who conforms to every masculine ideal of the time — the ultimate Western hero — then attempts to subvert that message by revealing that actually he is a coward. Harte is very explicit about this in his narration: …beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat
Poker Flat is, in the opinions of many, on a downward slope. The town has lost thousands of dollars, and has experienced a moral. In an effort to save what is left of the town and reestablish it as a "virtuous" place, a secret society is created to decide whom to exile and whom to kill. On November 23rd of , four "immoral" individuals are exiled from Poker Flat. The first of them is a professional poker player, John Oakhurst. He is among those sent away because of his great success in winning from those on the secret committee. On his way out of town, he is joined by The Duchess, a saloon girl; Mother Shipton, a madam; and Uncle Billy, the town drunk and a suspected robber.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte
This short story was adapted for film in , and again in Good luck finding it, though. Then [in ] the composer Andrew E. Simpson wrote a one-act chamber opera dramatizing the story. It was performed most recently in to positive reviews , and from the summary appears to follow the source material much more closely than any of the cinematic adaptations.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat Summary
John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the 23d of November, , he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause was another question. In point of fact, Poker Flat was "after somebody. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it.