Slantwise Moves: Games, Literature, and Social Invention in Nineteenth-Century America

Slantwise Moves: Games, Literature, and Social Invention in Nineteenth-Century America

Slantwise Moves: Games, Literature, and Social Invention in Nineteenth-Century America

Slantwise Moves: Games, Literature, and Social Invention in Nineteenth-Century America


In 1860, Milton Bradley invented a game called The Checkered Game of Life. Having journeyed from Springfield, Massachusetts, to New York City to determine interest in this combination of bright red ink, brass dials, and character-driven decision-making, Bradley exhausted his entire supply of merchandise just two days after his arrival in the city; within a few months, he had sold forty thousand copies. That same year, Walt Whitman left Brooklyn to oversee the printing of the third edition of his Leaves of Grass in Massachusetts. In Slantwise Moves, Douglas A. Guerra sees more than mere coincidence in the contemporary popularity of these superficially different cultural productions. Instead, he argues, both the book and the game were materially resonant sites of social experimentation--places where modes of collectivity and selfhood could be enacted and performed.

Then as now, Guerra observes, "game" was a malleable category, mediating play in various and inventive ways: through the material forms of pasteboard, paper, and india rubber; via settings like the parlor, lawn, or public hall; and by mutually agreed-upon measurements of success, ranging from point accumulation to the creation of humorous narratives. Recovering the lives of important game designers, anthologists, and codifiers--including Anne Abbot, William Simonds, Michael Phelan, and the aforementioned Bradley--Guerra brings his study of commercially produced games into dialogue with a reconsideration of iconic literary works. Through contrapuntal close readings of texts and gameplay, he finds multiple possibilities for self-fashioning reflected in Bradley's Life and Whitman's "Song of Myself," as well as utopian social spaces on billiard tables and the pages of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance alike.

Highlighting meaningful overlap in the production and reception of books and games, Slantwise Moves identifies what the two have in common as material texts and as critical models of the mundane pleasures and intimacies that defined agency and social belonging in nineteenth-century America.


On the Uses and Abuses of Games

Ragged at the edges from a century and a half of wear, a black and gold game board waits quietly in the archives of the Missouri History Museum. Wispy lines carve the surface, tracing links between tarnished brass images of “happiness” and “idleness,” “truth” and “crime,” “bravery” and “suicide.” These slanted strokes, etched remnants of aggressive play, suggest a history that goes beyond the imagistic content of an 1865 luxury edition of Milton Bradley’s runaway hit, The Checkered Game of Life—“handsomely gotten up,” as the ad copy of the day would have it, in “muslin and gilt.” Like the scarred drag of squid tentacles across the “dead, blind wall” of a sperm whale’s head, they invite visualizations of a now bodiless conflict. There is no definite sense of endings or meanings, of who won and precisely when. Instead, there is only a scratched and worn suggestion of many doings that create a weird impression of time, a phantom feeling of intimacy at a distance. Attempting to bracket these feelings, we might set out to learn something by looking at the board itself (Figure 1). We might note, perhaps, the nineteenth-century obsession with reforming “intemperance” imaged in a square illustrating the same. Or we might attend to the evidence of innovation in planar printing technique that is literally reflected in the flat golden impression of its lithographed surface. Yet the scratches continue to itch, reminding us of the play and movement that must accompany a faithful picture of the game’s cultural work. To “read” this artifact requires more than a scan of its surfaces: one must wind oneself to the rhythms of a different moment, moving things, arranging bodies, and sliding over the worn paths of now absent hands. Reading takes the form of testing for potentials, and the nature of this testing slides freely between material and conceptual domains of knowledge.

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