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The Deviancy of Rural America

A Literary Analysis on the Theme of Deviancy in Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp"

Even though the life and habits of different cultures seem completely, many qualities reveal themselves after time to be rather universal. There is the proverb in Swahili that roughly translates as “It takes a village to raise a child.” 

Proverb or not, this phrase reflects a social reality that exists not only in Africa but also in America, one of a communal obligation to raising the youth. Looking away from these Swahili sources, we can find an American source of these very same concepts in the works of Bret Harte, an American author who provides us with a very particular flavor of American subcultures in his short story "The Luck of Roaring Camp." 

His stoic and slightly distant narrative style allows for an eerily quiet form of storytelling not often found elsewhere, while he still makes an effort to provide us with a genuine sense of the values and culture considered normative at the time. 

Through the absurd propositions and actions of an all-male settlement, Bret Hart’s "The Luck of Roaring Camp" reveals the ways in which men must embrace deviancy and act maternally for the sake of an orphaned child. Hart’s revealing look into the transforming minds of Gold Rush settlers shows that, through their affection, sensitive protection, fiscal sustenance, and even their naming of the child show that these men moved past the social deficiencies of the time to make a positive life for this small child.

As mentioned previously, this settlement finds itself left with a young child after the local prostitute dies in childbirth. Seeing as though she was a woman who was very rough around the edges, one specifically described as “to be feared, a very sinful woman,” not one of the hundred male settlers claimed to be the husband. 

Because of this, the child was to be raised by the entire settlement; even when it was proposed that a female nurse be brought in, the settlers though it to be preposterous because no truly maternal woman could be convinced to such a settlement. Soon after, Hart points out that this was the first “symptom of the camp’s regeneration.”

These unruly newfound fathers only truly began to regenerate as the child at hand, affectionately referred to as Tommy Luck, introduced them to their own deviant maternal natures. This deviancy finds itself in many forms, from affectionate touch to providing the child with the domestic services it needs, such as clothing and sustenance. 

These were deviant from what many men in of the time found normal, which would have been that their only female company would have been a prostitute if they even had female company at all. In fact, census records of Northern California (the setting the story is approximately based in) show that in mining counties such as Roaring Camp, that women accounted for a meager >2% of the total population. 

One young man in Nevada once wrote: “Got nearer to a woman this evening than I have been in six months. Came near fainting.” This quote really exhibits just how few woman these men saw, and how infrequently they experienced modern amenities such as critical components of human infant development.

Modern studies, such as one performed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) in 2010, show us empirically that modern American mothers provide two common values for their children: attachment and language. (Emotional Relationships in Mothers and Infants: Culture-Common and Community-Specific Characteristics of Dyads From Rural and Metropolitan Settings. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43(2), pp.171-197.) 

As mentioned previously, these two facets split into a few smaller facets more apt for analysis: attachment is shown through physical affection, cultural affection, and fiscal/physical sustenance. Some of these efforts are very clear: Kentuck’s obsession with the child’s touch, the collection of alms in a small hat; meanwhile, the most apparent way to see how the miners brought language into play simply shows itself in the fact that they themselves named the small child.

Let’s look first to how affection is first shown for the young child:

“As Kentuck bent over the candle-box half curiously, the child turned, and, in a spasm of pain, caught at his groping finger, and held it fast for a moment. Kentuck looked foolish and embarrassed.

Something like a blush tried to assert itself in his weather-beaten cheek. "The damned little cuss!" he said, as he extricated his finger, with perhaps more tenderness and care than he might have been deemed capable of showing.

He held that finger a little apart from its fellows as he went out, and examined it curiously. The examination provoked the same original remark in regard to the child. In fact, he seemed to enjoy repeating it. "He rastled with my finger," he remarked to Tipton, holding up the member, "the damned little cuss!" "

Physical affection in the ruggedness of the American gold rush was few and far between, as Kentuck begins to almost become delirious with the fact that his hand was simply touched by the small child. Later on, after a sleepless night of celebratory drinking, he returns to the child’s door only to repeat the tired phrase: “Rastled with it, -- the damned little cuss.” 

This repition clearly shows that Kentuck thought about this child’s small gesture as very meaningful. After the initial event, he drinks to celebrate, later on even sits on the bank of the river and whistles to himself in what is described as an introspective measure by Hart. 

Moreso, looking later on in the short story we see that many of the denizens committed to learning lullabies for the sake of the child, even one “containing ninety stanzas.” All of these things show that Kentuck, in addition the other miners, have a very soft and vocal affection for the child in a way deviant to much of their past social experience.

Furthermore, cultural affections are given to the child in one of the most absurd scenes of the entire story: a christening. Whereas a normal christening can come in many different forms, the one given by the denizens of Roaring Camp is by no means normal. 

Acting as more of a junction between several religious ceremonies and municipal services, with the inclusion of banners, music, processions, altars, and the administration of a godparent. As you can imagine, the scene was described as reckless and irreverant even by the author. These men are unknowingly performing a deviance never before seen in this tiny mountain settlement: providing cultural affections for “their” child. 

By continuing an otherwise unnecessary tradition, they pay homage to those that performed those acts before them in an apparent attempt to include this child in their way of civilized life: ceremony, appointments, and singular diety worship. In fact, this scene shows the “the first time that the name of the Deity had been otherwise uttered than profanely in the camp.” Despite all the raucus absurdity of these events, none of the men present even considered a chuckle, as after Stumpy was declared the godfather and the christening continued on, not a single man laughed nor spoke out of turn.

Finally, we can look to how these men provided considerable fiscal support for the child and the man who raised him, Stumpy. Immediately following Tommy Luck’s birth, a simultaneous procession was held: both for those to provide alms to the small child and to pay respects to his expired mother. Many different types of support were given to the child, but nonetheless these alms were considerable when looking at the fact that his mother was a prostitute and none claimed to be the actual father. Among the items put together for the support of the child:

“A silver tobacco box; a doubloon; a navy revolver, silver mounted; a gold specimen; a very beautifully embroidered lady's handkerchief (from Oakhurst the gambler); a diamond breastpin; a diamond ring (suggested by the pin, with the remark from the giver that he "saw that pin and went two diamonds better"); a slung-shot; a Bible (contributor not detected); a golden spur; a silver teaspoon (the initials, I regret to say, were not the giver's); a pair of surgeon's shears; a lancet; a Bank of England note for 5 pounds; and about $200 in loose gold and silver coin.”

Relatively, for the time period and average wealth of the men in question, these men gave an incredible amount for a child they had no real obligation to. Perhaps seeing the child in person during their procession is what lead to this deviancy, as most men of the time were selfish enough that petty murder was considered normative.

Altogether, Hart’s introspective look at frontier living in the mid 1800’s is one of the more revealing stories in American literature. His work shows us a picture-perfect rendition of the squalor and ruggedness of the normative condition, all the while maintaining his uniquely distant writing style which allows the reader to infer on their own. Despite an undeniably sordid ending, the reader cannot help but see how the child sparked the deviant maternal nature within these men, for the posit of the child. Though his education left much to be desired, it is difficult to hope that a mostly illiterate group of men could raise a literate child.


Though many of the men’s acts would initially be considered absurd, the actions of this all-male dream team do an effective job at moving past the normative deficiencies to recognize and move onto something greater than the status quo. 

Bret Hart’s "The Luck of Roaring Camp" ultimately does an incredibly effective job at revealing the subtle ways in which these men had to embrace deviancy and act maternally for the sake of an orphaned child. Between the alms and the lullabies, The Luck was undeniably well treated for a child in his circumstances:

“Nature was his nurse and playfellow. For him she would let slip between the leaves golden shafts of sunlight that fell just within his grasp… to him the tall redwoods nodded familiarly and sleepily, the bumblebees buzzed, and the rooks cawed a [slumberous] accompaniment.” 

After reading these lines, I was envious of this child, if even for a moment. Truly, what other book can make its reader envious of an orphan born of a prostitute in a secluded settlement of rough and dirty miners?

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