As a child, a number of games appeared in our family life, brought to us by my grandmother, the very ones played by my mother when she was a child in the 1940s. These included such enduring classics as vintage Monopoly and Parcheesi boards. Also included was a card game called Authors, popular in the U.S.A. (where my mother grew up), yet all but unknown in Canada. It was meant to be educationally exemplary, an Old Maid-variant devised in the 1860s wherein a great figure of literature (with a decidedly American slant) were portrayed along with four of his (or her, the lone female being Louisa May Alcott) most well known titles. The goal, of course, was to extract cards by a particular author from your opponents and notch up a complete set of four to your “library.” In addition to concentration on the game, there were aesthetic pleasures to the cards in your hand, the soft-style period illustration bust portraits, small-print identification on a banner across the author’s chest and silhouette vignettes in the top left corner that encapsulated each title with an image.
As a result of numerous days spent with Authors, I formed lasting ideas about literature, which I did not bother to examine further by actually reading any of these books. A stereotypical boy, I suppose, my preference was to gather titles of adventure writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper and Mark Twain, with William Shakespeare thrown in for good measure, an acknowledgment of the local proximity of the Stratford Festival. What readings of the “classics” I did in my youth were almost strictly via Classics Illustrated comic books, choices of which never intersected with the “literacy” that I acquired by playing Authors.
Last month, at the St. Lawrence Antique Market, I found a more recent deck of Authors, dating, I would guess, from the late 50s. Only a few of the authors represented were the same—Alcott, Stevenson, Twain and Charles Dickens —their portraits, while derivative of those in the earlier set, were, to my eye, cruder, and the titles selected to represent them were different. Light blue replaced the black print. Instead of individual silhouettes for each title, a generic line drawing was repeated four times for every author. The new names included Howard Pyle, A.A. Milne, Hans Christian Anderson and Rudyard Kipling. Louisa Alcott was no longer the lone woman, the new set adding Cornelia Meigs (completely unknown to me). Someone had been inspired to bring children’s literature to a child’s game. However, there is something disconcerting about the probably all-too-accurate portraits of the adult authors, typically stern or sallow countenances. Even to a grown-up me, their faces trigger shuddering memories of fearsome Grade Four teachers and school principals.
Guest contributor Ben Portis