January 11, 1999
Volume 51, No. 15
Lears rolls the dice in lecture on American gambling
No matter how much the puritan impulses in the United States may try to flush the goddess Fortuna out of our lives, Americans always have and always will be fascinated by the "culture of chance," Rutgers University Professor Jackson Lears told a White Hall audience in his Dec. 7 lecture, "The Gambler's Search: Grace, Luck and Fortune in American Cultural History."
Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of American Studies at Rutgers, said the idea of studying gambling in America first came to him on a subway platform in New York in 1994. "I noticed the longest line at the subway was not at the token window but at the lottery window," he said. "Was this an homage to Fortuna? Was the lottery a hope-maintenance tax paid to New York state?"
Grace, luck and fortune are the "three key words" involved in the gambling discussion, and each connotes a different facet of Fortuna, Lears said. The first invokes the religious, cosmological convention, the notion that gambling success is "a free gift from God." It led to the 19th century rise of "dream books," to which Americans turned to interpret their dreams, hoping to find what numbers God wanted them to play.
Luck involves the playfulness in gambling, the tension between risk and reward. The gambler enjoys feeling "reality is suspended as long as another game can be played," Lears said, and money is raised "to the level of visualness--stacks of colored poker chips." Fortune implies the larger associations of the word, the belief in magic and cosmic portents which many early Americans displayed by carrying charms or amulets, or hanging horseshoes or other banes to evil spirits outside their doors.
As the Civil War passed and industrialism grabbed hold of the country, a new amalgam of the two sides began to emerge; through statistical probability, scientific advertising, risk assessment and limited liability, corporate America sought to control risk. "Positivistic science provided another vision for providential order," Lears said.
Finally, Lears said, in the second half of the 20th century Americans have experimented with new ways to reconcile the two extremes; indeed, the symbiosis itself has come to define part of the culture. "The conflict between acceptance of chance and the struggle for order marks the high point of modernism," he said.