Cover image for Something for nothing : luck in America
Something for nothing : luck in America
Lears, T. J. Jackson, 1947-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Viking, [2003]

Physical Description:
xi, 392 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HV6715 .L415 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Hailed by The New York Review of Booksas "one of cultural history's masters of linking popular moods and ideas with arts, philosophies, industries, and commodities," prizewinning historian Jackson Lears has now written the most important, most wide-ranging, and most original book of his career. In Something for NothingLears documents how America's culture of control is inextricably entwined with its culture of chance. Conventional wisdom has it that the Protestant ethic of hard work and self-control is what made America great, but a deep, seldom acknowledged reverence for luck runs through our history as well. Americans have embraced the seductive whims of chance, from African fortune-telling to Puritan folk superstitions right up to the current resurgence of casinos and lotteries. Drawing on a vast body of research, Lears ranges through the entire sweep of American history as he uncovers the hidden influence of risk taking, conjuring, soothsaying, and sheer dumb luck on our culture, politics, social lives, and economy. Written with impressive clarity and authority, Something for Nothingwill be compared to Louis Menand's bestselling The Metaphysical Cluband Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s. This is cultural history at its best-challenging, eye opening, deeply learned, and as surprising as it is illuminating.

Author Notes

Jackson Lears is a Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

From frontier poker games to shady big-city shysters to twentieth-century adults wearing diapers so as not to blow a winning streak at the Atlantic City slots, the history of gambling in America tells us a lot about our national character. Though the allure of chance and fortune transcends culture, Americans are uniquely conflicted about the relationship between luck and success. We pride ourselves on our work ethic, our ability to control fortune and amass wealth through rational, pragmatic pulling of our own bootstraps, yet we also relish converting our hard-wrought wealth into little plastic chips handled like toys. We revere our disciplined, self-made neighbor for working hard, pinching pennies, and being confident in order and Providence. Yet we also envy the speculative, entrepreneurial confidence man with his eye on the Main Chance and his money where his mouth is. Tension between these two ideals boils down to familiar, if highly implicit, differences between Protestant and pagan spiritual worldviews; it also accounts for why we moralize about gambling while building entire cities to celebrate it. Lears' broad-sweeping, highly readable social history is as much about grace as it is about gambling. --Brendan Driscoll

Publisher's Weekly Review

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) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

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 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Gambling for Gracep. 1
Chapter 1 The Dance of Divinationp. 25
Chapter 2 The Amusements of the Alehousep. 55
Chapter 3 Confidence Gamesp. 97
Chapter 4 The Waning of Providencep. 147
Chapter 5 The Incomplete Taming of Chancep. 187
Chapter 6 The Uncertain Triumph of Managementp. 229
Chapter 7 The Persistent Allure of Accidentp. 273
Epiloguep. 321
Notesp. 335
Creditsp. 367
Indexp. 369