Nov. 6, 2010

Gathering Leaves

by Robert Frost

The audio and text for this poem are no longer available.

"Gathering Leaves" by Robert Frost, from The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems Complete and Unabridged. © Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1935 that a woman named Elizabeth "Lizzie" Magie Phillips agreed to sell Parker Brothers the patent for her version of the board game Monopoly.

Lizzie Magie had invented the game back in 1903, although she called it The Landlord's Game, and in 1904 she was issued a patent. It was a game intended to teach a strong moral lesson. Magie was a young Quaker woman and a follower of Henry George, a political economist. George was the author of Progress and Poverty (1879), which was a huge best-seller, selling more than 3 million copies, a big number for its day. He argued that poverty was a direct result of monopolies placed on land and resources, and that it was immoral for a few people to own natural resources — especially land — and then rent them out. Not only was it unethical, he said, but it also would hurt the American economy. His solution was called the "single tax" theory — he thought that everyone should have an equal share in the land where they lived or worked, and pay a single, equal tax on it.

So Lizzie Magie invented a board game that showed how the evils of the current economic system — how landlords could become wealthy by buying a piece of land and then charging rent. The board looked very similar to the modern Monopoly board, with railroads in the corners, properties along the sides, some stops to pay property tax or improvement taxes, public utilities, and a jail square. She explained that the point of The Landlord's Game was "not only to afford amusement to the players, but to illustrate to them how under the present or prevailing system of land tenure, the landlord has an advantage over other enterprises and how the single tax would discourage land speculation."

The Landlord's Game became extremely popular in the homes of Quakers and other similar-minded people, and it was promoted by a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania named Scott Nearing — he was eventually fired for his radical politics and became an icon of the back-to-the-land movement as the co-author, with his wife, Helen, of Living the Good Life (1954). But for years he used The Landlord's Game to teach students about the inequality of capitalism, and it was that group of students that nicknamed the game Monopoly. Many of them, in turn, took it to their own classrooms, redrawing the boards from memory.

And so the game continued to spread, with rules and boards changing as people re-drew it, often modeled after the town of wherever it was being played. A woman named Ruth Hoskins took it to Atlantic City to use in the Quaker Friends School there, and it took on Atlantic City names and was picked up by an out-of-work electrician named Charles Darrow. Darrow was one of many people who tried to publish their own version of the game, but it was his that Parker Brothers chose in 1935, when they realized that the game was so popular anyway, they might as well be making money on it. By this time, it had lost almost all of its original social message. Charles Darrow claimed he had made the game up out of his head, inspired by a book he had read about a school where they taught business with fake money.

The only problem for Parker Brothers was that Lizzie Magie, now Lizzie Magie Phillips, still owned the patent to The Landlord's Game,which was so similar to the version they bought from Charles Darrow that they needed to buy up her patent as well. She refused to let them make changes to her original game, because she didn't want Henry George's ideas to disappear. But she didn't think to demand that they wouldn't publish the new version of Monopoly they had purchased from Charles Darrow. So they told her that they would keep publishing a version of her game and bought her out for $500 on this day in 1935. From then on, they promoted the Atlantic City version of Monopoly and published the story of a brilliant unemployed electrician who came up with the idea out of the blue. It wasn't until the 1980s, during a court case about a board game called Anti-Monopoly, designed by a college professor, that the true history of Monopoly's origins came out.

In 1936 alone, the year after Parker Brothers secured the patent, 1,810,000 copies of Monopoly were sold. Today it is the most-played commercial board game in the world.

It's the birthday of novelist Michael Cunningham, (books by this author) born in Cincinnati, Ohio (1952). He was accepted into the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and everything started out well for him. He got a couple of stories published, in The Paris Review and The Atlantic Monthly, and he got an agent and published a novel, Golden States (1984). He figured that the literary life would be easy. But his novel didn't do very well, and he kept getting rejected. He worked in restaurants and bars to make his living.

He was working on a chapter for a new novel, and his partner Ken Corbett read it and thought it was great, and told him he should send it out. He sent it right to The New Yorker, which had rejected him many times, just to make a point and show Ken what a tough world it was for a writer. To his shock, The New Yorker loved it and published it as the story "The White Angel," which turned into his second novel, A Home at the End of the World (1990). It got great reviews, but it was his 1999 novel, The Hours, that really launched him to fame — it was a best-seller, it won the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and it was made into a film in 2002. It's the story of three women in different times and places — one of them is Virginia Woolf — all tied together by the novel Mrs. Dalloway,one of Cunningham's favorite books and the first one he fell in love with. He said: "When I was 15 I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, because a girl on whom I had a crush threw it at me and said something like, 'Why don't you read this and try to be less stupid?' I did read it and, although I remained pretty much as stupid as I'd been before, it was a revelation to me. I hadn't known, until then, that you — that anyone — could do such things with language; I'd never seen sentences of such complexity, musicality, density, and beauty. I remember thinking, 'Hey, she was doing with language something like what Jimi Hendrix does with a guitar.' Mrs. Dalloway made me into a reader, and it was only a matter of time until I became a writer."

His most recent novel is By Nightfall (2010), published this fall. It's the story of a middle-aged, almost-great art dealer, Peter, who is constantly thinking about beauty. In different ways, he and his wife both become smitten with her beautiful 23-year-old brother. In it, Cunningham writes: "What marriage doesn't involve uncountable accretions, a language of gestures, a sense of recognition sharp as a toothache? Unhappy, sure. What couple isn't unhappy, at least part of the time? But how can the divorce rate be, as they say, skyrocketing? How miserable would you have to get to be able to bear the actual separation, to go off and live your life so utterly unrecognized?"

It's the birthday of the novelist James Jones, (books by this author) born in Robinson, Illinois (1921). He wrote about World War II in novels like From Here to Eternity (1951) and The Thin Red Line (1962). He said, "Having a little talent as a writer is like having a little talent as a brain surgeon."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of Harold Ross, born in Aspen, Colorado (1892). He founded The New Yorker magazine but never really fit in with The New Yorker's audience. He was gap-toothed, his hair was always a mess, and he spoke with a Western twang. He had never finished high school, and people sometimes joked that he'd only read one book in his life. But he had actually started out as a migratory newspaper man, traveling the country and filing hundreds of stories from California and Brooklyn and New Orleans and Panama. He later said of that period in his life, "If I stayed anywhere more than two weeks, I thought I was in a rut."

He settled in New York after serving in World War I, at a time when the city was suddenly filling up with smart, interesting people in their late 20s, and it occurred to him that there was no national magazine being written for this new generation. All the popular magazines at the time were either too intellectual or too middle-brow. Ross wanted to create a magazine that was funny and entertaining and unpretentious, and the result was The New Yorker, which was first published in February of 1925.

Ross knew right away that the magazine should have a distinctive look, and so he made sure that it was filled with cartoons. But at a time when most cartoons were caricatures of public figures or just one line gags with a picture attached, Ross insisted that his artists draw real things and real situations, people at bars or in offices or at parties or at home with their families, and the result was that he helped invent the kind of cartoon that The New Yorker still publishes today. Ross's genius was in spotting talented writers and hanging onto them. He personally hired E.B. White, James Thurber, Janet Flanner, A.J. Liebling, and Joseph Mitchell. Some of his employees were driven crazy by his endless memos and writing suggestions, or the way that he would walk into the writers' office and shout that he wanted to hear fingers pounding typewriters. But most people said they never really knew him. James Thurber wrote: "You caught only glimpses of Ross, even if you spent a long evening with him. He was always in mid-flight, or on the edge of his chair, alighting or about to take off." His is the only photograph that still hangs in the hallway of the New Yorker offices. It shows his hair slicked down, but just starting to stick back up.

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