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Something for Nothing: Luck in America Hardcover – January 27, 2003


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 408 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (January 27, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670031739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670031733
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,062,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From 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.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By pnotley@hotmail.com on February 20, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is the third book by Jackson Lears and it confirms his status as one of the most innovative of American intellectual historians. Like his previous books "No Place of Grace" about late 19th century conservative intellectuals, and "Fables of Abundance" about American advertising, his approach is idiosyncratic, and not easily summarized. His work uses a large amount of literary allusion, so as "Fables" invoked Little Nemo and examined Henry James and Joseph Cornell, in "Something" Cornell makes a return appearance, along with Mark Twain, Damon Runyon (of course) and a special examination of "Invisible Man."
Lears' book is based on a contrast between a "Culture of Chance" and a "Culture of Control." Naturally, the growth of science has helped to vastly strengthen the latter against the former. But it is not that simple. There is a clash between differing Christian, indeed Protestant, views of grace. Is grace granted unconditionally, freely, like the winner of a game of chance? Or is it a matter of Divine Providence which, if not saying salvation is earned by merit, does strongly state that the hard working self made man either will get success or deserves the success he gets. Lears discusses this in a nuanced and subtle reading of the theologian Paul Tillich. One the one hand he was promiscuous and power-hungry ("not an attractive combination, in a theologian or anyone else") and his view of grace could be fashionable, dangerously naive and convenient. But there was something important, that recognized the link between grace and chance. "...Tillich had recaptured a key element in the religion of Jesus..."
It is at this point that one must demur.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dave Schwartz VINE VOICE on August 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
It is patently obvious that Americans have always been a gambling people. But in Something for Nothing, Jackson Lears takes a further analytical leap, looking at how the "culture of chance" has been central to American life and thought. Though In Lears' summation the self-made man has been more influential than the confidence man in American, an America shorn of hereditary privilege and deference to one's betters was a fruitful breeding ground for the legions of Americans-from land speculators to day traders-seeking something for nothing.

Lears takes an interesting approach, admitting at the beginning that he is not writing a history of gambling but of chance, which he sees as a sort of anti-virtue, a shortcut to grace for those not willing to put in long hours at the hard work of self-betterment. Lears sees an Apollonian/Hermetic dialectic throughout much of Western culture, with the trickster Hermes, patron of the lucky rounder, pitted against the rationalist Apollo. The rampant gambling found in most periods of American history is symptomatic of a deeper struggle within the American psyche between chance and control.

Along the way, Lears hits all of the signature spots of any gambling history: Dostoyevsky's manic Roulettenberg, Jamestown settlers "bowling in the streets" while starving, itinerant blacklegs like Canada Bill Jones and George Devol, and many more. But he ties these evergreens to a larger cultural force that also shaped the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, the philosophy of William James, the writing of Ralph Ellison, and the music of John Cage. Lears also pulls in an impressive mass of cross-cultural analysis of luck and chance as a means to break down the components of the American culture of chance into its European, African, and Native American components.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By A Certain Bibliophile on January 13, 2012
Format: Paperback
Jackson Lears' "Something for Nothing" is an interesting and thought-provoking work written in the vein of social and cultural history, much like his "No Place of Grace," now some thirty years old. It looks at a wide swath of subjects from gambling, the rise of the market, and various Native American and slave folk traditions related to chance and luck.

According to Lears, two contradictory forces have always been at the heart of American experience: that of the speculative confidence man who has his eye on "main chance rather than moral imperative" and the other which "exalts a disciplined self-made man whose success comes through the careful cultivation of Protestant values" (p. 3). He calls these two instincts the "culture of chance" and "culture of control" respectively. Even though the growth of Protestantism and especially Puritanism damaged a vernacular culture of luck (by trying to impose a Providential reason and rationality upon it, instead of allowing for the free flow of play embodied by Fortuna), the split between the elite idea that Providence was superior and the more popular, demotic idea of divination persisted throughout the culture. Lears looks at the cultural importations of African slaves and Indians that created complex social relations with whites. As John Greenleaf Whittier asked rhetorically in 1847 "Is it not strange that the desire to lift the great veil of the mystery before us should overcome, in some degree, our peculiar and most republican prejudice against color, and reconcile us to the necessity of looking at Futurity through a black medium?"

By the late eighteenth century, luck had become less providential and more secularized, and the idea that "misfortune fell upon the worthy as on the licentious" became more widespread.
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