The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte, 1870

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by Bret Harte, 1870

Local color writing was an important part of the American literary chronicle during the latter part of the nineteenth century, and many writers tried their hand at it. One who made a significant contribution to the genre was Bret Harte, an easterner turned westerner who found in the mining camps of California his own gold mine of material for his literary efforts.

Harte had a deep feeling for those pioneer gold seekers, gamblers, and prostitutes who lived their lives in a devil-may-care, reckless fashion but who at the same time had the capacity for love and compassion in a setting that was not the most conducive for such. In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," first published in 1869 and then collected in The Luck of Roaring Camp, Harte focuses on the theme of the regenerative power of human love in a world where nothing can be assumed. He also presents an ironic contrast between self-righteousness and self-sacrifice.

Poker Flat, like most California mining camps of the time, is not a model of social decorum, but, as occasionally happens in communities, some of the leading citizens feel that the place needs to spruce up its image. Several thefts and a murder give rise to a kind of pseudomoralistic stance that demands a scapegoat or two to redeem Poker Flat's honor. Indeed, as John Oakhurst, the gambler who appears in a number of Harte's stories, ventures out on the street one morning, he senses a "Sabbath lull in the air, which in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous." In fact, in a cleansing ritual by some of the more upstanding citizens, Oakhurst has been targeted as one of several undesirables to be run out of town. His companions include two prostitutes, the Duchess and Mother Shipton, and Uncle Billy, a town drunk—an apt set of characters for a Harte story.

Left by their escort at the edge of Poker Flat, the four outcasts set off toward Sandy Bar, another mining camp, where they hope to resume their normal lives. The Duchess, however, tires before they get out of the mountains and refuses to go any farther. Despite Oakhurst's admonitions against stopping, "Uncle Billy passed rapidly from a bellicose state into a stupor, the Duchess became maudlin, and Mother Shipton snored." Looking at his companions, Oakhurst thinks of his own past life and where it has led him. Upon this scene come Tom Simson (the Innocent) and Piney Woods, his fiancée, who are eloping. Against Oakhurst's advice the two lovers decide to join the outcasts, thus setting the stage for the tragedy to follow.

The three women take refuge in a ruined cabin, and the men sleep on the open ground. The next morning Oakhurst awakens to a heavy snow falling and the discovery that Uncle Billy has run off with the horse and mules. Stranded, the pathetic group tries gamely to survive their situation on the little food they have and by keeping their spirits up with singing and storytelling. It is at this point that Harte shows the regenerative power of human love. Ironically, the Duchess takes care of Piney, and Mother Shipton starves herself to death by secretly saving her own food rations for the young girl.

After convincing the Innocent to go back to Poker Flat for help, Oakhurst piles up enough firewood to last a few days more and then also leaves the cabin. The Duchess and Piney are left alone. When Piney admits to the Duchess that she does not know how to pray, the latter seems relieved and rests her head on the young girl's shoulder: "And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep." The next morning, when help arrives, they are found dead in that position. Oakhurst—"who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat"—is also found not far from the cabin, gun in hand and a bullet through his heart

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" shows clearly Harte's penchant for basing sentimental plots on a formula that contrasts appearance and reality and for populating the plots with stock characters. And he certainly made it work. This story, along with the others he wrote focusing on the early mining camps of California, brings to life the boiling potpourri of characters and incidents that made the time such a rich part of American development. In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," as in so many of his other stories, Harte was able to move above the level of sheer sentimentality through a deft blending of humor, parody, irony, and deep feeling.

—Wilton Eckley