The Outcasts of Poker Flat
How Social Deviancy Shaped the West in Bret Harte’s Fiction
Bret Harte’s fiction contributed largely to the development of the Western as a literary genre. One of the earliest authors to fictionalize the American West, he spun humorous yarns depicting the offbeat gamblers, prostitutes, miners, and outright outlaws of 1850s California. These social deviants take central roles in his short stories: “The Luck of Roaring Camp”, “Miggles”, “Tennessee’s Partner”, and “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”. On the literal level, many of them, like the recurring character John Oakhurst, are fugitives from the law; figuratively, these characters represent a collection of values counter to the status quo of mid-nineteenth-century America. Their deviancy positions them in a distinctly new reality, which brought popularity to Harte and mystique and wonder to the Wild West. Gender roles appear to blur and blend along both edges in Harte’s work. In defining the West, these characters stand in contrast to Easterners as well as unwittingly unravel their own social identities. J. David Stevens’ essay, “‘She War a Woman’” compares the rugged mountain-woman Miggles to her Eastern sisters, a decorous French woman and a decadent belle from Virginia City. Miggles, whose name alone suggests androgyny, according to Stevens, rejects these women’s normative behaviors and in doing so provides herself the freedom to adopt masculine roles (578). And so she does adopt them, while also retaining feminine beauty and care for her invalid partner. Men find themselves in a similar situation in “Luck”, adopting stereotypically female roles after the boy Luck encourages a novel impetus for them to become domesticated caretakers. Axel Nissen, in his essay, “The Feminization of Roaring Camp”, analyzes the story by drawing parallels to Harte’s contemporary, Catherine Beecher’s treatise, The American Woman’s Home. Nissen defines Home as Beecher’s attempt to delineate a clear and comprehensive framework of female identity and the woman’s role in the house which reaffirm the rigid gender boundaries of domestic woman and dominant man. His argument continues that a comparison of these two texts comprises a “battle between the sexes” (381), with Harte appearing to criticize the exact social expectations that Beecher posits to uphold. Men-emulating females and women-emulating males are a recurring aspect of Harte’s fiction. In disassembling their normative roles, this hybridization of male and female roles illustrates a new society, unlike what Easterners were used to at home or expected to find out West.Harte further emphasizes his outcast protagonists by setting them in locations that isolate them from the civilized world and set Nature against them. Miggles and her beastly escort, a trained bear, live in a log cabin several miles from even the nearest train station. Given the argument that she embodies both male and female roles which separate her from her conventional counterparts, it is illuminating to find her home so remotely located. She expresses her weariness to her guests, “I couldn’t get any woman to help me, and a man I dursn’t trust.” (Harte 163), which implies that the traditional man and woman would discriminate against women who cross boundaries like Miggles. To use the post-colonial term, the heroine is othered because of her social deviancy. Likewise, John Oakhurst and his companions in the “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” are similarly treated. Poker Flat has assumed that Oakhurst is guilty of a robbery, but no mention is made of the actual crimes that had been committed by the others in his party. Harte is careful, however, to mention these characters occupations, The Duchess and Mother Shipton are involved in prostitution and Uncle Billy is a drunkard. The invisible judge in these short stories appears to have assigned any social deviant as a threat to conventionality and therefore have forsaken them before the beginning of their narratives. This magistrate can be understood as “Nature”. At the climax of “Luck”, a Nature described in aggressive, hostile terms: “tearing”, “scattering”, “crashing”, “crackling”, (Harte 110-111) floods the town killing the boy Luck, along with Stumpy and Kentuck, two of the camps more effeminate men. The narrative of “Tennessee’s Partner” approaches the issue on gender roles differently than the other three stories previously mentioned. The ambiguity of their relationship is imperative to the story. In this instance, Harte is not making figurative transvestites out of men and women but instead is questioning the conventions of marriage. Two interpretations of the relationship between Tennessee and his partner contrast nicely with each other.These are Stevens’ essay (referenced above), and Cleanth Brooks’ interpretation of “Tennessee’s Partner” in his book, Understanding Fiction. Brooks, writing several decades ago, argues that the work is “the story of a man’s intense loyalty to his friend” (181), and has trouble reconciling the love triangle of wife, Tennessee, and Partner, admitting he found the character Partner’s fastidious bond to his friend to be unfeasible in light of the alluded affair. Stevens’ interpretation offers a much more reasonable explanation of this situation. He notes how other critics have failed to recognize the affair “during” (583) the marriage, implying that the relationship was more than a male bond, as all three lived together. And convincingly, this point rationalizes the narrative’s climax: Partner’s despair over Tennessee’s tomb and his own miserable death alone imply that these men were more than loyal, there was romantic love between them. Chris Packard, in Queer Cowboys, believes Partner to represent a “new type of American” (100), as crafted by Harte. These “new” Westerners are radically and flagrantly different from the status quo anywhere in America at the time.