The Outcasts of Poker Flat

How Social Deviancy Shaped the West in Bret Harte’s Fiction College

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...

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