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A Bettor Nation Card Sharps, Dream Books, and Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America by Ann Fabian Review

by: Louis P. Masur Reviews in American History, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Dec., 1991), pp. 505-510 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2703289 . Accessed: 29/11/2012 08:59
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A BETTOR NATION
Louis P. Masur

Ann Fabian. CardSharps,DreamBooks,and BucketShops:Gambling 19th-Cenin turyAmerica.Ithaca:Cornell University Press, 1990. xi + 250 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $24.95. In Casablanca, when Captain Renault contrives an excuse to close Rick's Cafe he does so on the grounds that he is "shocked, shocked to discover gambling" on the premises; moments later he pockets his winnings. So it has always been. Gambling has often been denounced, not infrequently by those who profit from the practice. Despite such proscriptions, or perhaps because of them, American gambling in a variety of forms seems to be on the rise. In 1988, more than 200 billion dollars were wagered legally, and that is leaving aside stock market transactions; add approximately 20 billion more from illegal betting, mostly on sports. In the last decade, Las Vegas was one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, numerous states instituted some form of lottery to raise revenue, and, despite plunging in 1987, the stock market continued to attractnew investors. Alongside this has come the denunciation of increased social problems in Nevada, an attack on lotteries as a regressive tax on the poor, and the prosecution of a greedy few who had to fall so that the system could go on. Ann Fabian's richly conceived book does not aim to explain the gambling phenomenon in America. Nor is it a book about gamblers. Those expecting stories about the nineteenth-century equivalents to Amarillo Slim, Titanic Thompson, Minnesota Fats, and Pete Rose, or Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, will be disappointed. Rather, Fabian has written a subtle and sophisticated history of gambling as ideology, metaphor, and fiction. This is a book about contested meanings and conflicted cultures, a book in which the argument proceeds more by theory and analogy than by story-telling or detailed readings of texts. Her aim is to examine "gambling's relation to the evolution of the economic rationality which shaped a capitalist economy" (p. 6), to comprehend "how the moral values of a world based on production and productive labor gave way before the miraculous fertility of speculative capitalism" (p. 10). Part cultural criticism, part a history of economic thought,
Reviews in American History 19 (1991) 505-510 C?1991 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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CardSharps,DreamBooks,& BucketShopsis a challenging work that deserves the attention of all scholars of nineteenth-century American thought. Fabian's argument unfolds across four lengthy, undulating chapters. In each, her subject is how various discourses on gambling illuminate the dissemination and legitimization of economic rationality. She begins with an inquiry into the regional and class dimensions of how "gambling and debates about it helped create the moral and psychological structures for an economy based on gain" (p. 13). The focus here is primarily on opposition to gambling. Fabian uses the career of Robert Bailey, an ambitious Virginian who sought admission into the gentry class, to probe one side of the dialectics of gambling. Bailey, it seems, got stuck in a complicated trap. According to Fabian, inclusion within the southern elite meant buying into a set of cultural values antithetical to the profit maximization and rationalcalculation of Bailey's gambling persona. Rather than steady, orderly accumulation, a form of capitalist development connected to wage-labor, southerners associated gambling with passion and spontaneity, an association that fit well in a slave-labor system. Thus, while southerners denounced gambling, their opposition carried far less bite than northern denunciations. As for Bailey, he gambled, revealed gambling secrets, and profited from both acts. Fabiandiscusses the lynching of several gamblers in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1835, an event that she reads as the revenge of slaveholders on those who would make a "mockery of the cultural symbols of a planter aristocracy"(p. 36),1 but the focus of the book is more on the urban North than the frontier South. Her examination of such organizations as the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism and the New YorkAssociation for the Suppression of Gambling illuminates the connections among gambling reform, class conflict, and economic ideology. Though these associations might profitably be linked to religious culture and the waves of antigambling moralism dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Fabian's emphasis is almost entirely secular. Activists opposed gambling for many of the same reasons as other objects of bourgeois reform in the nineteenth century: it exacerbated the passions, promoted idleness, and challenged a social order geared to stability and steadiness. The "socially isolated, parasitic, and destructive gambler," Fabian observes, "threatened careful accumulations and undercut injunctions to save and to acquire" (pp. 60-61). And yet, the crusade against gambling never fully engaged. Fabian argues that by depicting gamblers as rational economic men relying on the fiction that irrationality, superstition, and chance governed their behavior, reformed gamblers such as Jonathan Harrington Green inadvertently served to bring gambling within the ethos of rational gain that governed the marketplace in the nineteenth century. As a consequence, sto-

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ries about gambling could not "resonate with the symbolic power of tales of drink, sexual license, or even slaveholding" (p. 99). And Green, a workingclass gambler turned activist and writer, lost all credibility with his middleclass audience. Not everyone accepted the rationality and intrinsic justice of the market economy, and Fabiandevotes a chapter to the "alternativeculture of irrational economics" (p. 112) suggested by numbers players and policy bettors, especially within the urban African-American community. As lotteries came under attack for undermining the capitalist injunction to work hard and accumulate slowly, savings banks became vested with moral as well as financial authority. Fabian creatively uses Denmark Vesey, who purchased his freedom with money won in a lottery, to illuminate the cultural anxieties over sudden wealth and to initiate a discussion of the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company, the well-known bank designed to lead ex-slaves "into the calculations and desires of a market society" (p. 133). The Freedmen's Bank failed, however, to strip depositors of their willingness to take seemingly irrational chances. Policy players, Fabian argues, "exercised forms of power that openly challenged the rational assumptions of a market economy" (p. 137). And dream books, ephemeral guides that translated the contents of dreams into numbers, marked the persistence of folk beliefs among outsiders (i.e. African-Americansand poor, white immigrants) to the newly hegemonic culture of scientific calculation and logical investment. Just as some blacks stood removed from the ideology of the new economic order, so too did many farmers. Fabian devotes the final chapter to a discussion of the Populist critique of commodities speculation and an examination of the process through which the Chicago Board of Trade legitimated itself against rival bucket shops, brokerage houses without connection to official markets and exchanges. Farmers, Fabianargues, responded to the economic changes engulfing them by resorting to an atavistic moral language suggestive of a "world where the economy was embedded in the spiritual and where undue gain condemned a man to hell" (p. 159). John Philip Quinn, another in the line of reformed gamblers turned writer and preacher, denounced speculation in commodities as a destructive fiction that obliterated the producer ethos in America. He was not alone, as illustrated by the debate over the Hatch Bill in 1892, a failed attempt to tax profits from futures trading in agricultural commodities. In the end, the conflict was transformed from one between producers and speculators into one over legitimate versus illegitimate speculation, and it was accomplished by the speculators appropriating the language of producerism. As Fabian deftly points out, "the members of the Board of Trade made the devil the gambler who counterfeited speculation and not the speculator who counterfeited crops" (p. 188), they "called prices

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things and called themselves producers" (p. 161). The upshot was the further entrenchment of an economic order centered on speculative wealth and the severing of the connection between virtue and commerce. Dense with insight and commentary, this book resists being broken down into its parts; the epigraphs alone, from works by Polanyi and Lukaics,Lefebvre and Veblen, merit deep consideration. Subtlety and scope, however, come at a price; inevitably there are simplifications and omissions. The dexterity of Fabian's analysis hinges on a common form of historical reductionism. It is now part of the professional liturgy to say "the economy shifted from one of limited gain to the open and endless commercial markets of the nineteenth century" (p. 38) or to assert working-class "traditions of reciprocity and mutuality" (p. 41). Both statements may be accurate, but outside the experiences of individuals struggling in a specific historical moment they are largely meaningless. Indeed, it is striking how lifeless most of the figures in the book seem. To describe Thomas Eddy simply as "a wealthy insurance broker" (p. 49) is equivalent to calling Ramsey Clark a rich New Yorklawyer. Even Bailey, Green, and Quinn never come alive in these pages. And too often the other actors here are nameless "reformers"and "reporters."2 Fabian's gaze is fixed on economic rationality, but it is not clear that this is the most prominent feature of the intellectual landscape she surveys. In recent years, historians of science have analyzed the triumph of probabilityover determinism, of statistical thinking over universal laws. Most students of the subject have focused on France and England, though it is clear that similar shifts occurred in the United States. The relationship between the stress on economic rationality, which Fabianfinds so pervasive, and the obsession with laws of chance, with averages, numbers, and classifications, seems criticalto an understanding of gambling in nineteenth-century America. As Ian Hacking, the foremost scholar on this topic, has suggested, "Games of chance furnished initial illustrations of chance processes."3 Given this literature, one must wonder about the lines of connection between Fabian's laws of rationality, Hacking's laws of chance, and the multiple forms of gambling that helped give meaning to these intellectual currents. Fabian seems to have drawn a line and placed on one side those resisting the cultural logic of capitalism and on the other those embracing it, but it is likely that the tension between the superstitious and the rational was as much within individuals as between them. Playing the lottery and having a savings account were and are not mutually exclusive acts suggesting competing economic agendas. Individuals partake in both simultaneously and where there is conflict it occurs within classes as well as between classes, a point made in August Wilson's Fences(1986) when Troy Maxson tells his numbers playing spouse "you ain't doing nothing but throwing your money away."4

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The argument in that play between husband and wife raises an issue that I wish Fabianhad addressed: the connections between gambling and gender. Except as part of a faceless middle-class audience, or figures on the title pages of dream books, women make no appearance here. And when Fabian offers a suggestive reading of James Weldon Johnson's TheAutobiography an Exof Colored Man (1912), she does not comment on how the narrator'sbehavior in a dice game becomes critical to his identity as a man: "I could feel that I had gained the attention and respect of everybody in the room, every eye was fixed on me, and the widespread question, 'Who is he?' went around. This was gratifying to a certain sense of vanity of which I have never been able to rid myself."5Throughout CardSharps,DreamBooks,& Bucket Shops,manliness comes up again and again, whether in the praise of those Vicksburg citizens who lynched the gamblers (p. 30) or in the description of "the masculine world" of the broker's office (p. 192);it is an issue in need of future attention. Fabian'spreferred rhetoric is theoretical; she is adept at using social theory to give meaning to her intellectual history and vice versa. Typical of the method, in the midst of a discussion of agrarian attitudes toward the market she observes "economic innovation and epistemological innovation went hand and hand" (p. 159). Although Fabian can postulate a connection more easily than she can demonstrate one, that is the sort of big question worth thinking about, the sort of question historians have abdicated to others and that Fabian now reclaims. I can't help wishing, however, that she experimented with other rhetorics, particularlya story-telling one. Had she devoted her talents as much to telling as analyzing stories this book would have succeeded at yet another level. An individual against the odds, that is the stuff of every gambling story in any economic order through time. How those stories are formulated and presented, who reads and hears them, deserves more of a place in Fabian's narrative than they receive. The meaning of gambling is as much a matter of individual stories as of social structures. Individual gamblers can be ruthless yet merciful, isolated yet part of a community, irrational yet calculating. One of my favorite gambling stories tells of a time when, through a wager, two gamblers, one a bitter, expatriate loner and the other a sexist collaborator, redeemed themselves, aided a noble cause, and embarked on a beautiful friendship. The story of Rick Blaine and Louie Renault is a gambling story; like all good stories, it helps to hear it before we theorize about it. LouisP. Masur, Department History, Universityof California,Riverside,is the of authorof "'Age of the First Person Singular':The Vocabulary the Self in New of England, 1780-1850," Journal of American Studies 25 (September 1991): 189211.

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1. An alternative reading of the Vicksburg lynchings is offered in John M. Findlay, People of Chance:Gamblingin American Societyfrom Jamestownto Las Vegas (1986), pp. 64-71. 2. For a revealing look at the emergence of reporters in this era, see Steven H. Jaffe, "Unmasking the City: The Rise of the Urban Newspaper Reporter in New York City, 18001850," Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1989. 3. Ian Hacking, The Tamingof Chance(1990), p. 3. Also see Lorraine Daston, ClassicalProbability in the Enlightenment(1988); Theodore Porter, The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820-1900 (1986); Steven Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900 (1986); and Patricia Cline Cohen, A CalculatingPeople:The Spreadof Numeracyin EarlyAmerica (1982). 4. August Wilson Fences (1986), p. 22. 5. James Weldon Johnson, TheAutobiography an Ex-Colored of Man, in John Hope Franklin, ed., ThreeNegro Classics (1965), p. 445.

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