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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

November 19, 2019: Local Color Stories: “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”

[On November 18, 1865, Mark Twain’s short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was first published in The New York Saturday Press (under its original title, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog”). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy “Frog” and four other local color short stories, leading up to a special weekend post on teaching such American texts.]
On a far more serious story that both relies upon and challenges stereotypes.
No literary movement or genre has a single origin point, of course; and while Twain’s “Jumping Frog” was certainly an early example of American local color writing, the first (late 1860s) publications from Bret Harte represent another influential early voice in that budding genre. Harte was friends with Twain from their days as a pair of youthful California journalists, and the two writers even co-authored the script for a play (1877’s Ah Sin, although by the time it premiered Harte had largely left the production). But despite that relationship and the similar Western geography of their early lives, careers, and publications, Harte’s version of local color writing was far less consistently humorous than Twain’s, and far more consistently sentimental and sad. Exemplifying this more serious version of local color is Harte’s second published short story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” (1869), the tragic tale of a group of characters who are exiled from a frontier mining town for perceived crimes and immorality and meet a brutal fate amidst (and because of) the harsh Western landscape.
One persistent, if understandable, problem with local color stories is their reliance upon stereotypes, their creation of characters who seem to embody “typical” roles within their particular local worlds (this was especially troubling for Southern local color writing, on which more in Friday’s post). Harte’s portrayal of his frontier mining community certainly suffers from the same shortcoming, as the four titular outcasts are: “John Oakhurst, gambler” (the story’s narrative perspective so slightly more nuanced, yet nonetheless a gambler through and through); two prostitutes, “a young woman familiarly known as ‘The Duchess’; another, who had won the title of ‘Mother Shipton’; and ‘Uncle Billy,’ a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard.” By putting their names in quotation marks Harte seems to indicate his awareness that these are stereotypical identifications and roles; but in many ways the story bears them out, both when characters live up to the stereotypes (Uncle Billy drinks heavily and then robs his fellow outcasts) and when they don’t (the prostitutes are revealed to have hearts of gold, an early example of what would become a very stereotypical character type).
Yet if the story’s focal characters embody frontier stereotypes, the overall situation that drives its plot actually challenges the very notion of them. Oakhurst and his compatriots are outcast because of “a change in [the town’s] moral atmosphere since the preceding night, … a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.” It’s not just that the town (Poker Flat) hasn’t practiced such morality in the past—it’s that by expelling a few individuals chosen seemingly at random, the town can pretend to a present morality it in no way possesses (we’re told that those expelling Oakhurst for gambling were at the table with him the night before, for example). Indeed, Harte suggests that it is the casting out—and the far worse punishment of lynching, embodied in the “two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch”—which comprises the true immorality in this place and moment. Those immoral punishments operate by identifying individuals deemed “improper persons”—by, that is, associating them directly with both their own stereotypical identities and the stereotypical (and false) image of a virtuous community. A pretty nuanced and important theme for a local color story, and one of many reasons to keep reading Harte’s text.
Next short story tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this story? Other local color stories you’d highlight?

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