Gambling against the House: Anglo and Indian Perspectives on Gambling in American Literature

Article excerpt

Arguing that the controversy over reservation gambling reflects unresolved tensions involving Indian relations and the social role of gambling in American culture, this essay analyzes gambling in two early-twentieth-century novels, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Mourning Dove's Cogewea, the Half-Blood.

In the 1840s, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States as a nation of gamblers. "Those who live in the midst of democratic fluctuations," he wrote, "have always before their eyes the image of chance, and they end by liking all undertakings in which chance plays a part" (165). As this visitor has observed, capitalism combined with democracy encouraged Americans to engage in business speculations "not only for the sake of the profit it holds out to them but for the love of the constant excitement occasioned by that pursuit" (165). The recent proliferation of legalized gambling in America, combined with the country's ongoing fascination with the drama of stock markets, political campaigns, and sporting contests, confirms this view. However, despite the continued popularity of gambling, a tension between the dictates of the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of risk and speculation at the heart of American capitalism has made gambling a deeply divisive issue. While risk-taking is v iewed as a necessary element of success, it is considered detrimental when reduced to mere gambling. The distinction between the two is not always clear. As cultural historian Ann Fabian argues, the absolute difference between virtuous capitalistic speculation and vicious gambling cannot be maintained with any absolute degree of precision (5). Not only do the two categories merge into each other, but, depending on the circumstances, it is also possible to conceive of virtuous gamblers and vicious speculators. In the United States, gamblers can be heroes and can be villains, while speculators can serve as both captains of industry and confidence men. These modalities are evident across a broad spectrum of texts from various subgroups within the United States.

In its analysis of the ubiquitous presence of gamblers in American literature, I focus in this essay on two novels from the early twentieth century: Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Mourning Dove's Cogewea, the Half-Blood. Juxtaposing a well-known text from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wharton with the work of a less well-known writer of Native American descent provides an opportunity to examine gambling and its relation to United States political economy from a cross-cultural perspective. Focussing on female protagonists who are beset by choices involving lifestyle, work, and marriage, both novels employ gambling scenarios and metaphors as key plot-shaping devices and ideological touchstones. While Wharton culls gambling metaphors from bourgeois American culture, Mourning Dove draws from a gambling tradition rooted in the culture and cosmological beliefs of indigenous peoples. Given that gambling metaphors are endemic to both Anglo and Indian [1] texts, the juxtaposition provides a means to examine the role of gambling in society and how that role is complicated by a variety of social, economic, and political tensions.

In each novel, gambling functions as a sign that calls into question rules governing socio-economic exchanges and the motives of agents vying for socio-economic prizes. In the Anglo-American text, ambivalencies toward gambling and capitalistic speculation lead to a tragic resolution; in the Native-American text, gambling functions as a comic trope of resistance and survival. While gambling has consequences in both novels, the differing values of the gambling metaphor suggest that the social role of gambling is determined by cultural context. To better distinguish these values and the contexts in which they have meaning, I examine the history of gambling in British America and in the United States. I then turn to Wharton's use of gambling metaphors in The House of Mirth to demonstrate the instability of the vicious gambling / virtuous speculation paradigm. …