In 1836 Benjamin Drake, a midwestern writer of popular sketches
for newspapers of the day, introduced his readers to a new and
distinctly American rascal who rode the steamboats up and down the
Mississippi and other western waterways -- the riverboat gambler.
These men, he recorded, "dress with taste and elegance; carry gold
chronometers in their pockets; and swear with the most genteel
precision.... Every where throughout the valley, these mistletoe
gentry are called by the original, if not altogether classic,
cognomen of 'Black-legs.'"
In Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men, Thomas Ruys Smith
collects nineteenth-century stories, sketches, and book excerpts by
a gallery of authors to create a comprehensive collection of
writings about the riverboat gambler. Long an iconic figure in
American myth and popular culture but, strangely, one that has
never until now received a book-length treatment, the Mississippi
River gambler was a favorite character throughout the nineteenth
century -- one often rich with moral ambiguities that remain
unresolved to this day.
In the absorbing fictional and nonfictional accounts of high
stakes and sudden reversals of fortune found in the pages of
Smith's book, the voices of canonized writers such as William Dean
Howells, Herman Melville, and, of course, Mark Twain hold prominent
positions. But they mingle seamlessly with lesser-known pieces such
as an excerpt from Edward Willett's sensationalistic dime novel
Flush Fred's Full Hand, raucous sketches by anonymous Old
Southwestern humorists from the Spirit of the Times, and colorful
accounts by now nearly forgotten authors such as Daniel R. Hundley
and George W. Featherstonhaugh.
Smith puts the twenty-eight selections in perspective with an
Introduction that thoroughly explores the history and myth
surrounding this endlessly fascinating American cultural icon.
While the riverboat gambler may no longer ply his trade along the
Mississippi, Blacklegs, Card Sharps, and Confidence Men makes clear
the ways in which he still operates quite successfully in the
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