In 1860, Milton Bradley invented 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.