Friday, March 16, 2012

S. W. Erdnase & The 1893 World's Fair

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What does it mean to call Erdnase a Chicago writer?
It's not at all clear how long he lived in Chicago.  We
can safely assume, it seems, that he was here in 1902
when  The Expert at the Card Table was published,
and he seems to have spent enough time in the city 
in the 1890s to have come to know some people in 
the gambling community.  


One common line of speculation is that he came 
to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair, part of an
influx of gamblers and conmen who flooded the
Windy City at the time to help relieve the 
20 Million visitors to the Fair of their excess dollars.  


Observer lurking outside the 1893 World's Fair


It's difficult today to appreciate how important 
the Fair was in America's Cultural Imagination
at the time.  Frank Baum based the Emerald City
of Oz on the White City of the Fair




The buildings were made of white stucco which was as dazzling as it was temporary - only one of the structures was made to survive longer than the few months the Fair was open to the public.  The contrast to the heart of the City, far to the North, was  especially strong as Chicago itself was often called the Black City because of the soot that hung in the air and clung to the buildings.  

If Baum's imagination turned the Fair into  a magical city, Henry Adams' reaction was far more typical: 

   One lingered long among the dynamos, for they were new, and they gave to history a new phase.  Men of science could never understand the ignorance and naivete of the historian, who, when he         came suddenly on a new power, asked naturally what it was; did it pull or did it push? Was it a screw or thrust? Did it flow or vibrate? Was it a wire or a mathematical line? And a score  of such questions to which he expected answers and was astonished to get none. 

  Education ran riot at Chicago, at least for retarded minds which had never faced in concrete  form so many matters of which they were ignorant. Men who knew nothing whatever -- who had never run a steam-engine, the simplest of forces -- who had never put their hands on a lever -- had never touched an electric battery -- never talked through a telephone, and had not the shadow of a notion what amount of force was meant by a watt or an ampere or an erg, or any other term of measurement introduced within a hundred years -- had no choice but to sit down on the steps and brood as they had never brooded on the benches of Harvard College, either as student or professor, aghast at what they had said and done in all these years, and still more ashamed of the childlike ignorance and babbling futility of the society that let them say and do it.

For Adams, as for most Americans, the Chicago's World Fair was the picture of modernity, and Chicago was the pre-eminent modern city, founded on laissez faire capitalism and the latest technologies,  sky scrapers and the industrialization of agriculture were its great innovations.  Politics was brutal in Chicago, based on a frankly acknowledged war class warfare, and run by a political machinary which seemed to sacrifice no efficiency to the corruption which was its essential driving force.  Most Americans viewed it as a thoroughly, if not proudly,  immoral center for prostitution and gambling where they thrived unchecked as long as the politicians and the police received their share of the spoils.  

One way to understand Erdnase is as a modernist emblem within this Social Darwinistic context.  After all he spoke of cheating at gambling in terms of survival:

  The passion for play is probably as old, and will be as enduring, as the race of man. Some of us are too timid to risk a dollar, but the percentage of people in this feverish nation who would not enjoy winning one is very small. The passion culminates in the professional. He would rather play than eat. Winning is not his sole delight. Some one has remarked that there is but one pleasure in life greater than winning, that is, in making the hazard.

  To be successful at play is as difficult as to succeed in any other pursuit. The laws of chance are as immutable as the laws of nature. Were all gamblers to depend on luck they would break about even in the end. The professional card player may enjoy the average luck, but it is difficult to find one who thinks he does, and it is indeed wonderful how mere chance will at times defeat the strongest combination of wit and skill.


A little further on, he writes:


  The average professional who is successful at his own game will, with the sublimest unconcern, stake his money on that of another's, though fully aware the odds are against him. He knows little of the real value of money, and as a rule is generous, careless and improvident. He loves the hazard rather than the stakes. As a matter of fact the principal difference between the professional gambler and the occasional gambler, is that the former is actuated by his love of the game and the latter by cupidity. A professional rarely "squeals" when he gets the worst of it; the man who has other means of livelihood is the hardest loser.

Keplinger Caught Cheating
  In other words, the advantage player doesn't cheat because crooked gambling is a good way to make money, he cheats so he can keep gambling.  His survival as a gambler is at stake.  To survive as a gambler, one not only had to find money enough each cold Chicago's winter night for room and board, one had to find enough to fund the next game.  If the gambler passed himself as a wealthy amateur or ranch-owning Texan, he had to find enough to maintain such an illusion.  There was no safety net to catch those who failed, and being caught was hazardous to life and limb. 

The world of crooked card sharps is a closed one, but as far as we can tell, Erdnase has never been embraced by their number.  It is magicians who have appreciated his insights, built upon his techniques and taken him to their hearts.  Magicians bring us back to Frank Baum who based his Wizard on Harry Kellar, often cited as America's first great magician, but Kellar represents the Golden Age of American Magic, and The Expert at the Card Table is the founding text of modern magic.   

The Golden Age of Magic was an era of showy effects, filled with flourishes and expensive apparatus.  The post-Erdnasian magician sought invisibility above all.  Taking what he said about gamblers and applying it to themselves, magicians began valuing naturalness and uniformity & ease of manner above all else.  Rather than work in front of large audiences with expensive equipment, Erdnase imagined the magician doing card tricks in a parlor with a deck of cards the most expensive apparatus needed.  

Magic still survives on the stage, but close up forms of magic have come to dominate.  Only in Las Vegas do people really plan on attending magic shows anymore.   Elsewhere magicians are much more likely to be found walking around a corporate gathering or party, or working on a street corner these days than working the stage.  Rather than flourishing cards in fancy displays, most magicians aim to make their workings seem as smooth and natural as possible.  Erdnase's mechanics are still current.  The Modern Era of Magic which rises out of Erdnase is still with us.
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1 comment:

imcdermott said...

So true that Las Vegas is the place for gambling *and* magic. Great piece!