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Something for Nothing: Luck in America

Something for Nothing: Luck in America

by Jackson Lears

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Jackson Lears has won accolades for his skill in identifying the rich and unexpected layers of meaning beneath the familiar and mundane in our lives. Now, he challenges the conventional wisdom that the Protestant ethic of perseverance, industry, and disciplined achievement is what made America great. Turning to the deep, seldom acknowledged reverence for luck that


Jackson Lears has won accolades for his skill in identifying the rich and unexpected layers of meaning beneath the familiar and mundane in our lives. Now, he challenges the conventional wisdom that the Protestant ethic of perseverance, industry, and disciplined achievement is what made America great. Turning to the deep, seldom acknowledged reverence for luck that runs through our entire history from colonial times to the early twenty-first century, Lears traces how luck, chance, and gambling have shaped and, at times, defined our national character.

Editorial Reviews

The Los Angeles Times
Put most dryly, Something for Nothing: Luck in America is a cultural history of American attitudes toward gambling. But it is also a Lears book through and through, a fevered dream encyclopedia filled with sharpers, grifters, conjurers, diviners and a kind of shadow companion to Nicholas Lemann's The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, tracing out lines of resistance — what Lears calls "animistic countertendencies" — to the high Protestant myth that would yoke grace to social status. Our world of commercial self-interest, Lears tells us, with its emphasis on self-mastery, on self-reliance and the self-made man, has left no proper place for dumb luck. — Stephen Metcalf
The New Yorker
The belief that there is luck in the world, and that some people can "work it," appears to be something that no amount of Enlightenment rationality can completely do away with. In a narrative so sweeping that there is a fresh example in nearly every paragraph, Lears, a distinguished historian with a special interest in the quirky cultures of protest and dissent that percolate beneath the sleek official culture of competence and control in America, examines our persistent fascination with chance. If you work hard, it is modest and becoming to ascribe your success to luck; but if you really are lucky, and get something for nothing, your success is tainted. Lears emphasizes the paradoxes: gambling is immoral and voodoo is a superstition, but trading on margin and going to confession enjoy social approval. From sacred palm nuts to John Cage's aleatory art, this book is a reminder that modernity is a project forever incomplete.
Publishers Weekly
Public moralists cannot abide the obsessive gambler. They bemoan the disintegration of a solid work ethic and condemn the search for the quick buck, the belief that it's possible to get something for nothing. But Lears, a historian at Rutgers and editor of the journal Raritan, finds a much more complex issue at the heart of gambling in America, one that raises fundamental ethical, religious and philosophical questions that strike at the very core of our culture. He writes, "Debate about gambling reveals fundamental fault lines in American character, sharp tensions between an impulse toward risk and a zeal for control. Those tensions may be universal, but seldom have they been so sharply opposed as in the United States, where longings for a lucky strike have been counterbalanced by a secular Protestant Ethic that has questioned the very existence of luck." Lears offers a history of conflicting attitudes toward luck, beginning with early English settlers and continuing up to September 11, 2001. The book often reads like a course in Western Civilization, moving easily among the disciplines of religion, history, literature, art, economics, philosophy and science. And yet the vast assemblage of information becomes so overwhelming, it's easy to lose the book's primary thread; i.e., the ways that gambling, chance and luck have shaped American culture. Furthermore, the emphasis on men as the primary actors is too narrow; where are the women in this cultural history? Despite its flaws, however, this challenging, erudite and original book is a significant contribution to American cultural studies. Agent, Loretta Barrett. (On sale Jan. 27) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Cultural historian Lears (history, Rutgers Univ.; Fables of Abundance) chronicles the history of the culture of "chance and ceremonies" in the United States. He uses the debate over the legalization of gambling to segue into the deeper cultural, spiritual, political, and ethical issues that have pitted against each other two classic American icons-the "big gambler" and the "self-made man." Lears takes the reader on a circuitous narrative journey, beginning with Native American and early African American superstitions and conjurings and ending with "gambling" on the bull market of the 1990s. The dense text is infused with the author's insights into the connections among art, literature, religion, and the sciences through the ages. More than a history, this is an attempt to reassert "the claims of luck against the hubris of human will." A thought-provoking and insightful book recommended for scholars and American history collections.-Robert K. Flatley, Kutztown Univ. of Pennsylvania Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Cultural historian Lears (Fables of Abundance, 1994, etc.) thoughtfully reviews the American reverence for grace, fortune, and luck all the way from primeval casting of lots down to last week’s bingo in the church basement. The Polynesians called the embodiment of nature’s forces in a human being "mana," a word the author appropriates to describe the beneficent impact of luck. His report covers just how Native Americans engaged in sortilege and how that numbers game produced dream books. Lears (History/Rutgers Univ.) retells tales of famed gamblers and recaptures the frisson of encounters with African-American tricksters from a strange world. He delineates the American history of magic, religion, folkways, and more. Literature, philosophy, psychology, cosmology, film, and fable are conflated in a learned stew. De Tocqueville appears for a few comments, and the author checks out the art of George Caleb Bingham. Diamond Jim Brady stands cheek by jowl with Anthony Comstock. Darwin and Rockefeller, Huck Finn and Dr. Faust, Walter Benjamin and such household names as Tristan Tzara and Miguel de Unamuno all make appearances. Nick the Greek, Damon Runyon, and a host of colorful folk with their voodoo bags and sacred bundles contribute to the collected signs, portents, mojo, and grisgris. Finally, Lears considers Manichean politicos and postmodern tricksters like architect Frank Gehry. Fresh from the dust of antique books and obscure magazines, our author has clearly done a great deal more than adequate research in an apparent attempt to encompass all of our national civilization under one mysterious rubric. Likely to put the casual reader in fear of a pop quiz: well written, but too much of agood thing.

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[ I ]

The impulse to gamble is mysterious and powerful. Anyone who doubts it might consider a few scenes from the recent casino revival: In Connecticut, a couple leaves a nine-year-old boy in a car overnight in freezing weather while they gamble at Foxwoods Casino. In Mississippi, parents also leave their twelve-year-old son in a vehicle, but with a revolver for protection. In Niagara Falls, casino operators complain that slot machine players are urinating into the plastic coin cups supplied by the casino or onto the floor beside the machines. Some wear adult diapers. All are reluctant to leave a machine they are hoping will soon pay off. And in Louisiana, video poker players report trancelike out-of-body experiences, the feeling of "being sucked into oblivion."1

What is going on here? For many public moralists, the answer is simple. According to Walter Cronkite, the legalization of gambling means that "a nation once built on a work ethic embraces the belief that it's possible to get something for nothing." Similar sentiments have sparked nationwide campaigns against casinos, one led by a Methodist minister and Vietnam veteran named Thomas Grey. He calls his recruits "Gideon's Army" and claims to be "fighting a battle for the soul of America."2

This struggle is not uniquely American. Gambling is provoking ferocious controversy in other countries as well. In 1992 Chinese Communist officials in Shanghai unleashed a campaign against mah-jongg that included mass self-criticisms by 4300 party members who had sworn off gambling, the public burning of 400 mah-jongg sets, and the commissioning of 5000 antigambling squads. None of this stemmed the Chinese obsession with the game. The modern conflict over gambling is part of a global war that has erupted periodically for several centuries-the clash between revolutionary virtue and reactionary vice. That struggle has surfaced whenever the righteous declare their intention to remake the licentious, to create a systematically disciplined "new man." As Michael Walzer once observed, there is a direct lineage from Cromwell to Lenin. And rectitudinous modernizers, whether Puritans or Communists, have never had much truck with gambling.3

From the modernizers' view, gambling was a relic of a decadent old regime-a vice that epitomized the European haut monde evoked by Dostoevsky in The Gambler (1866). Dostoevsky's Roulettenburg is a society powered by feverish, erotic obsession-with money, status, romantic attachment. Whatever the object, what is crucial is the desire to be always in pursuit, on the edge, whether at the roulette tables or in a lady's chamber. The only constraints on this quest for intense experience are the remnants of a creaking caste tradition, a set of musty principles and rituals that easily can be counterfeited. In Roulettenburg, it is always an open question whether this marquis or that countess is the genuine article or not. In contrast, the revolutionary "new man"-bourgeois or socialist-was an icon of authenticity.

Still, despite the international dimensions of controversy over gambling, the recurrent furor has a peculiarly American resonance. Debate about gambling reveals fundamental fault lines in American character, sharp tensions between an impulse toward risk and a zeal for control. Those tensions may be universal, but seldom have they been so sharply opposed as in the United States, where longings for a lucky strike have been counterbalanced by a secular Protestant Ethic that has questioned the very existence of luck. That conflict is the subject of this book. It is not a history of gambling per se, but a history of conflicting attitudes toward luck. Contemporary gambling games recall ancient rituals-attempts to divine the decrees of fate, and conjure the wayward force of luck. Those rituals were (and are) rooted in a distinctive world view, based on a certain respect-even reverence-for chance. This outlook contrasted sharply with what became an American creed: the faith that we can master chance through force of will, and that rewards will match merits in this world as well as the next. For me, writing about luck is a way of eavesdropping on a contentious conversation at the core of our culture-a conversation that raises fundamental ethical, philosophical, and even religious issues.

What makes the conversation so revealing is that it counterposes two distinct accounts of American character. One narrative puts the big gamble at the center of American life: from the earliest English settlements at Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay, risky ventures in real estate (and other less palpable commodities) power the progress of a fluid, mobile democracy. The speculative confidence man is the hero of this tale-the man (almost always he is male) with his eye on the Main Chance rather than the Moral Imperative. The other narrative exalts a different sort of hero-a disciplined self-made man, whose success comes through careful cultivation of (implicitly Protestant) virtues in cooperation with a Providential plan. The first account implies a contingent universe where luck matters and admits that net worth may have nothing to do with moral worth. The second assumes a coherent universe where earthly rewards match ethical merits and suggests that Providence has ordered this world as well as the next.

The self-made man has proven to be a far more influential culture hero than the confidence man. The secular version of Providence has resonated with some characteristically American presumptions. A providential sense of destiny could be expanded from individuals to groups and ultimately to nations-and to none more easily than the United States. Even before there was a United States, colonial orators assumed their settlements would play a redemptive role in the sacred drama of world history. As the Puritan John Winthrop declared in 1630, the holy commonwealth at Massachusetts Bay would be a "Citty on a Hille," a beacon of inspiration for all Christendom. By the revolutionary era, the city on a hill had spread to the whole society: America became "God's New Israel." As the new nation grew richer and more powerful during the nineteenth century, the profounder religious meanings of Providence began to fall away. Prosperity itself came to seem a sign of God's blessing-at least to the more affluent, who have always felt drawn to secular notions of Providence. Like the Rockefellers and other prominent pewholders in Protestant churches, America was rich because it deserved to be. For the deserving nation as for the deserving individual, progress was inevitable. Or so the more fortunate have assumed, from the first Gilded Age to our own more recent one.

A providentially ordered society contained little space for gamblers-at least in its conventional morality. Yet it was precisely the pervasiveness of social uncertainty that made the insistence on moral certainty so necessary. The salience of secular providence rose in response to the comparative openness of American society. Fortunate people have always wanted to believe that they deserved their good fortune, but fortunate Americans were in especially urgent need of reassurance. Compared to the Old World, the United States was a riot of shape-shifting status strivers. Beginning in colonial times, the abolition of hereditary privilege broadened opportunities for counterfeiting profitable selves. Main Chances multiplied with the emergence of unregulated market society in the early nineteenth century. As in Dostoevsky's Roulettenburg, impostors proliferated, and the very boundlessness of American possibility demanded a stricter set of internal prohibitions than were available in aristocratic old Europe. The exorcism of the confidence man required the invocation of his double, the self-made man.

As the apotheosis of plodding diligence, the cult of self-made manhood has posed severe challenges to American gamblers. For more than two centuries, our moralists and success mythologists have disdained gambling and denied chance, arguing that "you make your own luck" and insisting on a solid link between merit and reward. The New York Times columnist William Safire echoes generations of clerical critics in his bitter condemnations of legalized gambling. "The truth is that nothing is for nothing," he writes. "Hard work, talent, merit, will win you something. Reliance on luck, playing the sucker, will make you a loser all your life."4 In a competitive society, few apparitions are more terrifying than the specter of "the loser"-the poor sap who never really grasps how to play the game.

Yet the defenders of diligence have never entirely vanquished the devotees of chance. At least since Tocqueville compared American society to "a vast lottery," our business mythology has celebrated risk-taking, knowing when to hold and when to fold, taking advantage of "the breaks."5 Especially in flush times, it has not always been easy to distinguish gambling from speculation or investment, and even Horatio Alger knew that luck was as important as pluck in achieving success. The gambler, endlessly starting over with every hand of cards, has embodied the American metaphysic of reinventing the self, reawakening possibilities from one moment to the next. The gambler and the entrepreneur have been twinned.

Still it has been crucial to tell them apart. For those who believed that the American economic system was part of a providential order, the respectable businessman could never be reduced to merely a fortunate gambler. Illicit gambling had to be distinguished from shrewd investing and successful entrepreneurship. Historically, Safire and other moralists have played a crucial role in legitimating market culture, explaining away random or rigged inequalities by incantatory references to hard work and just desserts.

For a while, in recent years, it looked as if the bull market of the 1990s had posed a fundamental challenge to this rhetorical tradition. The sorcerers of the dot-com economy temporarily severed stock prices from the ballast of company earnings-the product of disciplined achievement over time. By banishing that vestige of the Protestant Ethic, they also helped to create new models of legitimate gambling. The best-known were day traders-sitting entranced at their computer consoles, dodging bullets, riding momentum, selling out just in time (they hoped), and feeling drawn inexorably to the frisson of danger. Their solitary, obsessive existence bore a striking resemblance to the life of the compulsive gambler.

Yet descriptions of day trading remained largely untainted by the language of pathology. It was a risky business, economic pundits agreed, but at the same time merely a distilled version of the game we were all constantly being urged to play. When money seemed magically to beget more money-or make it disappear-with no more apparent rhyme or reason than the arrangement of numbers on a screen, the hallowed distinction between gambling and investment became more difficult than ever to sustain.

All the more reason, then, to legitimate the new, on-line gamblers by stigmatizing the old, off-line ones, who tend to be grayer, paunchier, and poorer than the young whippets of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Stock trading may breed pathological or destructive behavior, but it is seldom subjected to the clinical gaze of psychiatry-and even more rarely, in recent years, to the baleful stare of moralists. Even now, when we know that much of the bull market prosperity was based on fraud, moral outrage tends to focus on the confidence men who rigged the game rather than the game itself. As official thought leaders squirm to protect investor confidence, stock trading preserves a precarious legitimacy. Gambling, in contrast, remains a perfect target for dissection, disapproval, and oversimplification.

Though attitudes toward gambling reveal complexities at the core of our culture, inquiry into its significance has remained largely within the censorious boundaries suggested by a New York Times headline: "Fervid Debate on Gambling: Disease or Moral Weakness?"6 This puritanism has long framed American discussion of personal habits that undermine the (implicitly Protestant) ethos of systematic self-control: cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, idiosyncratic sexual tastes. With respect to gambling, as with other guilty pleasures, we are offered a nonchoice between moral and medical idioms of disapproval.

The tendency to view gambling only in the context of other associated vices (alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution) has clouded our understanding of its larger cultural meanings. A reformist agenda of social control provides a lens too limited to capture the complexity of practices rooted in venerable traditions. The problem with the critique of gambling is not that it is mistaken-without question, compulsive gamblers have ruined legions of lives, not least their own-but that it is too narrowly circumscribed. By reducing gambling to a collection of psychiatric symptoms or a sign of political corruption, critics have overlooked its wider web of connections to ancient, multifaceted rituals that have addressed profound human needs and purposes.

Debate about gambling is never just about gambling: it is about different ways of being in the world. That is a major assumption behind this book. It is not the sort of claim that can be comprehensively demonstrated, but comprehensiveness is not what this book intends. I aim to suggest persuasively, not prove conclusively. The main narrative concerns the constantly shifting tensions between rivalrous American cultures of chance and control. At its most familiar moments, this tale involves the face-off between the confidence man, the devotee of Fortuna, and the self-made man, the herald of Providence. But the story raises more serious philosophical issues than that confrontation suggests. It also ranges more widely, including women as well as men, conjurers and their clients as well as faro dealers and their dupes.

The confidence man is only a recent and commercial representative of an ancient, capacious culture of chance-a culture more at ease with randomness and irrationality, more doubtful that diligence is the only path to success, than our dominant culture of control. The culture of chance acquired special significance in the American setting, where it met unprecedented opposition from Protestant and later managerial apostles of self-discipline. But its origins can be traced into the dim past, to the person who first cast stones or shells to read in their chance array the will of the cosmos-and perhaps to conjure its power in his own or his clients' behalf. Runes are the ancestors of cards and dice. The conjurer and the gambler are kinfolk under the skin.

Cultures of chance and control are ideals that overlap and intermingle. They rarely exist in pure form. While both seek patterns of meaning in the random chaos of human events, what varies is the role of chance in this project. Cultures of control-as in the American Protestant or managerial tradition-dismiss chance as a demon to be denied or a difficulty to be minimized; while cultures of chance treat it as a source of knowledge and a portal of possibility. Cultures of chance have their own rituals, beliefs, even gods (though ones largely unacknowledged). They also have their own fetishes. A glance at the baroque extravagance of slot machine design leaves little doubt that the one-armed bandit is a fetish object refashioned for a modern industrial age.

Whatever their forms and rituals, cultures of chance encourage reverence for grace, luck, and fortune-powers beyond human mastery whose favor may nonetheless be courted. Since these three words will be frequently mentioned in the text that follows, they deserve some preliminary clarification here. By luck or fortune, I mean the force at the core of the cosmos that governs chance events, that can be sometimes conjured but never coerced. Grace is even more elusive. It is what happens when openness to chance yields a deeper awareness of the cosmos or one's place in it-when luck leads to spiritual insight.

The gods of the culture of chance survive in the contemporary American setting. The woman who consults a dream book to interpret her unconscious life (and learn what number to play) may be participating in an ancient tradition of divination. The man who buys a lottery ticket may be paying homage to Fortuna, a deity long discredited by devotees of self-help. However futile, his gesture still loosens the keystone of the dominant culture of control: our quasi-official faith (evangelical or managerial) in the human capacity to master fate. Apparently trivial games can become ways of raising ultimate questions-of connecting numbers running and cosmology, gambling and grace.

Outside Christian tradition, grace could appear in many secular forms. It could serve as a term for that ever-elusive sense of oneness with the cosmos that athletes experience when they are "in the zone," artists when they are compelled by inspiration, or gamblers when they are on a hot streak. If we are lucky, grace could be what happens when we take a chance, when we cease trying to control events and simply play.

In Homo Ludens (1938), the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga identified "the play element in culture," demonstrating how a spirit of serious play animated religion, philosophy, law, war, and a host of other human activities-a spirit obscured but not obliterated by the modern obsession with systematic work.7 The spirit of serious play preserves a critical edge, despite its alarming resemblance to pop-psychological cant about the wisdom of recovering our "inner child." The key to its complexity is the constant possibility (and perhaps the ultimate certainty) of loss.

For the gambler as for the believer, grace can be born of losing as well as of winning. According to the fictional female gambler in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda, there was always the chance that "one could experience that lovely, lightheaded feeling of loss, the knowledge that one had abandoned one more brick from the foundation of one's fortune, that one's purse was quite, quite empty...and no matter what panic and remorse all this would produce on the morrow, one had in those moments of loss such an immense feeling of relief-there was no responsibility, no choice."8

In a society such as ours, where responsibility and choice are exalted, where capital accumulation is a duty and cash a sacred cow, what could be more subversive than the readiness to reduce money to mere counters in a game? The gambler's willingness to throw it all away with merely a shrug of the shoulders could embody a challenge, implicit but powerful, to the modern utopian fantasy of the systematically productive life. The idea that loss is not only inescapeable but perhaps even liberating does not sit well with our success mythology, which assumes at least implicitly that "winning is the only thing."

What is sorely missing from American public debate is a sense, historical and spiritual, of this connection between gambling and grace. How could it not be? Urgent policy decisions regarding the prohibition of video poker or the providing of tax breaks for casino owners can hardly await the outcome of metaphysical speculation. Still the larger questions-the ultimate questions-demand consideration. Occasionally they have received it. The maverick psychoanalyst Theodor Reik, for example, called gambling "a kind of question addressed to destiny"-aptly catching the religious motives behind the wagering impulse.9 But the crucial, clarifying connection between casinos and churches is the link between gambling and grace. The notion of grace as a kind of spiritual luck, a free gift from God, lies at the heart of gambling's larger cultural significance.

To some readers, the attempt to associate the sordid scenes of gambling with the exalted aspirations of religion may seem sentimental at best. Yet religious people themselves acknowledge the link. The Episcopal Reverend Jeffrey Black of Kansas City, Missouri, likens the wagering impulse to a yearning for redemption: "The whole hope of a human being is that somehow, in spite of the things I've done wrong, there will be an episode when grace and fate shower down on me and an unearned blessing will come to me-that I'll be the one."10

The most profound meditations on grace, from Blaise Pascal to Jonathan Edwards and Paul Tillich, have all led toward a refusal of anxious striving, a recognition that the dream of mastery over fate was a delusion. In this tradition, a sense of grace could not be produced predictably or earned systematically (though schoolmen sought to formulate methods); it could be courted only obliquely and experienced fleetingly. It was a gift, "something for nothing."

But even without referring to grace, thinkers who have given chance its due have raised fundamental philosophical issues. From William James to Ralph Ellison, the most thoughtful meditations on chance have been rooted in a willingness to live with unresolved conflicts-to embrace accident while affirming the possibility of transcending it, to acknowledge absurdity while sustaining a vision of cosmic coherence. This acceptance of paradox and contradiction undergirds a tragic sense of life: a capacity for hope in the face of inevitable, pointless loss-a state of grace where the cultures of chance and control can somehow come together.

Such speculations may be a long stretch from the bleary-eyed slot players, pissing in their change cups. I do not mean to dignify compulsive gambling or to deny its damaging effects. Lotteries are not in my view a fair way to raise public revenue, nor are casinos a good solution to the economic redevelopment of depressed areas. But this book is not about the contemporary public policy debate surrounding the legalization of gambling, nor indeed about gambling at all as an isolated subject. It uses gambling as a port of entry into a broader territory of contending cosmologies. Gamblers and their critics will appear often in these pages, but so will fortune-tellers, fabulists, philosophers, and theologians.

Participants in the culture of chance share a common indebtedness to a primary figure in Western myth-the shape-shifting Greek god Hermes. Patron of herdsmen and artisans and musicians, tradesmen and travelers and thieves, he was above all trickster-god and "bringer of luck"-hence patron of the Athenian lottery as well. Hermes presided over crossroads, places of uncertainty where chance and choice merged. His earliest monuments were piles of phallic-shaped stones often used as boundary markers. They set off the line between the known and the unknown, embodying a primal erotic energy for tradesmen and other itinerants.11 Hermes captured connections between gambling and divination, between the desire to comprehend the cosmos and the longing for luck. In this he resembled other tricksters: the North American Coyote, the West Central African Eshu. By tracing Hermes' ties to the trickster tradition, we can begin to see the largest meanings of the culture of chance-its resistance to intellectual system, its openness to ambiguity and accident.

Meet the Author

Jackson Lears's previous books include No Place of Grace and Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America. Lears is a Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and the editor of the distinguished journal Raritan. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines.

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